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Suffolk Legal Aid lawyers vote to unionize

From left, Suffolk County Legal Aid Society attorneys

From left, Suffolk County Legal Aid Society attorneys Kathleen Evers, Arthur Burdette and Lani Houston with the certified vote tally after staff attorneys voted to unionize on Tuesday. Credit: Stephanie Giancristofaro

Attorneys for the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, which represents clients who cannot afford legal services, have voted to unionize in an effort to boost pay and lessen turnover, union organizers said.

Staff attorneys voted 67-25 on Tuesday to form the Suffolk County Legal Aid Attorneys Association, becoming one of the last Legal Aid societies in the metropolitan area to unionize, officials said.

Attorneys who led the unionization effort said Suffolk’s Legal Aid attorneys earn less than peers in the area and lack mechanisms for getting raises and promotions.

The union, which is not yet affiliated with a larger labor organization, will enable attorneys to negotiate salaries, pay raises and promotional procedures through collective bargaining, organizers said.

“We feel that by making the conditions better for ourselves, we will provide better services to the community,” said Lani Houston, one of three Legal Aid attorneys who helped lead the unionization effort.

Suffolk Legal Aid provides criminal defense, Family Court representation, social work assistance and other legal services. It handled more than 30,000 cases in 2017, according to Suffolk County budget documents, and has more than 100 staff attorneys.

The county was expected to provide Legal Aid with $12.2 million — compared with $12.6 million in 2018 — and to give 3 percent salary raises. The society has other funding sources, including New York State.

Organizers said attorney starting salaries at Legal Aid are between $55,000 and $60,000, compared with $65,000 for attorneys in the Suffolk district attorney’s office.

Suffolk Legal Aid administrators were not available for comment Wednesday.

The Legal Aid Society of Nassau County has been unionized for several decades, said attorney-in-chief N. Scott Banks.

The Suffolk County Legislature, which issued a letter of support for the union, will have to review whether to increase Legal Aid’s funding, said Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague).

Houston and organizers Arthur Burdette and Kathleen Evers said many colleagues have left to seek higher pay at legal aid societies in Nassau and New York City.

“You don’t become a public defender for financial gain,” Burdette said. “You know going into it, you’re going to be underpaid. But it becomes a point where it just becomes unfair.”

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