LSSA Testifies Before NY City Council Committee on the Justice System

The Legal Services Staff Association was honored to be able to present the following testimony on March 12, 2018 to the New York City Council’s Committee on the Justice System:

Thank you, Councilmember Lancman and the members of the Committee on the Justice System, for allowing LSSA to testify about our work with the City Council on behalf of low-income New Yorkers.

We in LSSA are the staff employees at Legal Services NYC (LSNYC) and at Mobilization for Justice (MFJ). We are a proud part of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, Local 2320 of the UAW. We represent all non-management employees at LSNYC & MFJ –attorneys, paralegals, secretaries, social workers, fiscal and IT staff, process servers, and even maintenance workers.

Victims of domestic violence, people with HIV/AIDS, workers cheated of their wages, developmentally disabled residents of group homes, those wrongfully denied federal disability benefits or unemployment insurance, New Yorkers facing homelessness due to wrongful eviction or foreclosure, families torn apart or threatened by unnecessary foster care placements: these are but some of the New Yorkers whose rights we vindicate every day.

With our colleagues at Legal Aid, we are the safety net that catches New Yorkers as they fall. We help New Yorkers access benefits and services that keep them in their homes and away from life-threatening situations. My colleagues and I do this because we are dedicated to justice, and because we know that society can be made more equitable.

We have turned down jobs that pay more and don’t require us to stare anguish in the face every day. Our decision is made possible by the wages, benefits and job security for which, through our union, we have fought so long and so hard. These benefits allow us to build careers in legal services, and then provide the benefit of those years of experience and depth of knowledge to our clients.

The City Council has been tremendously supportive of the work that we do, and has asked LSNYC to be one of the major providers of New York City’s expanded efforts to fight displacement and gentrification, first with the Tenant Rights Campaign and now with Right to Counsel.

We appreciate the faith and responsibility you’ve placed in our staff and union members to serve the low-income tenants of New York City. This is a tremendously important step forward for tenants.

We hope that as this program expands that the City Council continues to look for ways to fully fund these services. You know that Right to Counsel, though it provides an unprecedented amount of funding, still does not fully fund the work that is being asked of providers.

This forces providers to cut corners: making tough decisions to not hire a social worker who could connect clients to needed services or talk to a tenant in a mental health crisis; hiring fewer process servers and secretaries and paralegals than we really need. This results in support staff being overloaded and attorneys having to take on overwhelming amounts of peripheral administrative work, leading to widespread frustration and inefficient delivery of services.

Underfunding of the actual cost of the work also forces us to cut corners by spending less time on each case than our clients deserve. We do not want to become factories churning out pro forma stipulations of settlement: our clients deserve more than that. Please help us by fully funding what it actually takes to provide quality representation.

The rapid pace of expansion has also placed tremendous strain on the courts’ physical locations. Our advocates are being forced to meet with new clients in the hallways and stairwells of the courthouses. Not only does it compromise their confidentiality to share their stories with us within earshot of strangers and landlords’ attorneys, it is tremendously undignified and insulting to force tenants to do this. It also puts them at risk – at risk of identity theft, as they must share sensitive identity information in a public setting, and for many tenants, at risk of detention by ICE, as ICE agents are targeting courthouses looking for immigrants.

The other challenge I’d like to raise is the administrative burden and delay posed by the City’s cost-reimbursement system. The time required to voucher for the work creates a significant administrative burden that cuts into the time available to provide the actual client services. This vouchering process can be an impediment to the work, particularly when receivables can remain outstanding for extended periods of time.

Our staff and organizations want to do the best work we can for tenants. Please help us by continuing to identify additional sources of funding for this work, finding confidential space within the courthouses to meet with tenants, and by finding ways to streamline and reduce the administrative burden on programs.

Turning to a new program on the horizon, we want to express our strong support for the proposed funding for Legal Services for low-wage workers. The rights of immigrant workers, workers of color, and low-wages workers are all under attack. Our members at LSNYC and MFJ work with low-wage workers whose employers steal their wages, discriminate against them based on because of past criminal histories, and more. The need is urgent. We can and must do more to support these workers.

Non-profit legal services providers and worker centers have the will and ability to help these workers in a way that private attorneys cannot and do not. Your direct funding of legal services providers and workers centers will help us expand our support to individual workers as well as workers organizations who organize groups of workers to achieve justice and obtain wages that have been stolen from them.