Thanks to compassionate action by Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota can now officially share a state employee’s vital counseling expertise with a Red Cross program aimed at combating a heartbreaking epidemic: veterans’ suicides.
On Tuesday, Dayton signed an executive order allowing Shelley Koski, a state Department of Corrections clinical therapist, to take paid leave to lead specialized workshops for military members and their families. Koski is one of fewer than 100 volunteers nationally with the training required for the workshops.
The top regional Red Cross official had petitioned Koski’s employer for help. But Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy denied paid leave, even though a 1994 law allows state employees to take up to 15 days with pay annually to help the Red Cross provide disaster assistance. Koski previously had used the leave to provide hurricane relief, but few employees request it. In fiscal 2015, a total of 96 hours of paid time off were covered under the law.
A Star Tribune story by Mark Brunswick spotlighted her plight. The Department of Corrections doubled down on its denial on Monday after an inquiry from an editorial writer. Roy had consulted with Minnesota Management and Budget on the issue. The guidance: mental health training isn’t a disaster. “Commissioner Roy does not break the law,” spokeswoman Sarah Latuseck said. The decision regrettably failed to recognize that the estimated 20-plus veterans who take their lives each day is in fact a public health disaster. The outcome also left Roy’s agency, recently recognized for its support of veterans, requiring Koski to take personal time to prevent more veteran deaths. Roy should have recognized the decision’s dubious outcome and explored other options when so many veterans are at risk. Surprisingly, he did not consult with Dayton’s office.
But an editorial writer did ask if other measures were possible, and on Tuesday, Dayton’s office announced that he would sign an executive order allowing Koski to use paid leave. The welcome problem-solving strengthens Minnesota’s commitment to veterans. More important, it could save a veteran’s life. State lawmakers should take note. A permanent fix adding flexibility to the 1994 law is needed.