May 6, 2013
Over 200 employees of Legal Services NYC (LSNYC), the largest low-income civil legal services provider in the nation, received unprecedented contract demands from their employer on Wednesday evening. The LSNYC Board of Directors demanded financially unnecessary concessions including weaker healthcare coverage for particularly vulnerable members, higher employee payments to healthcare premiums, reductions to 403(b) retirement contributions, and zero cost of living adjustments to the wage scale. The Legal Services Staff Association (LSSA) attempted to avert a confrontation by offering last-minute concessions including a healthcare contribution equal to two percent of salary, which would constitute the first such contribution in decades, and a freeze on cost of living increases.
Members of the Legal Services Staff Association (LSSA) have continued to represent low income and elderly New York City residents in civil legal matters, without an employment contract, since July 1, 2012. In the final hours of bargaining, management balked at a provision that would stem the continued erosion of frontline anti-poverty advocates relative to the number of supervisory personnel. There is currently one manager for every three bargaining unit members at Legal Services NYC.
LSSA members will consider management’s proposal in a citywide meeting on May 15. A vote to reject the offer would mean a strike and would shut down access to legal services for thousands of the city’s low-income residents. Nevertheless, LSNYC clients are voicing support for the advocates who represent them.
“When I lost my job during the financial crisis, Wells Fargo attempted to foreclose on my home,” says Mohammed Hassan, a client of Staten Island Legal Services. “Without the experience of these career Legal Services advocates, my family would have been evicted. The Board of Directors’ demands seem geared toward depriving people like me of high quality legal services, which we could not otherwise afford.”
The demands for concessions come amidst funding circumstances of disputed severity. According to budget forecasts provided by management, LSNYC expects a working capital surplus of over $7.7 million at the end of the proposed contract period, which extends retroactively to July 2012 and would carry the organization through June 2014. Labor and management have agreed to negotiate on the basis of this two year contract term.
The Vice Chairman of the LSNYC Board of Directors, Michael Young, concedes that management’s funding projections are unrealistically low and has acknowledged during bargaining sessions that the organization can expect to raise between $2 and $3 million per year in new revenue. According to the conservative end of this estimate, the organization will have at least $9.7 million in working capital reserves in June 2014.
LSNYC attorneys are quick to point out that wealthy board members seem to be behind the insistence on concessions. “This unprecedented push for givebacks appears to be driven by Joseph Genova, Chair of the LSNYC Board of Directors and partner at corporate law firm Milbank Tweed, where partners in 2011 earned over $2.5 million,” says Ian Davie, an attorney at Legal Services NYC-Bronx. “With a salary over forty times the starting salary of LSNYC attorneys, Genova has no interaction with our poverty law advocates and no understanding of our clients’ hardships.”
Preserving the career employment model of civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers is at the heart of the disagreement, says LSSA President Gibb Surette. “Legal Services NYC offers salaries well below industry standards, but our members are willing to make their careers here because they care deeply about quality legal assistance for the underserved communities of New York City. The healthcare and retirement benefits allow people to stay and develop expertise in specific areas, like foreclosure defense or domestic violence cases. We’re saying ‘let’s wait until we really know the funding situation before we permanently undermine that model.’”