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Legal Aid Lawyers Strike Over Higher Raises and Parental Leave

By Danielle Tcholakian | February 2, 2015 11:47am
 56 of MFY's 72 employees went on strike Monday morning, protesting a contract they said undervalued their lowest-paid colleagues.
MFY Legal Services Strike
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CIVIC CENTER — Lawyers are on strike at one of the city's top legal aid organizations, leaving the firm with hardly any staff left to handle cases.

Attorneys, paralegals and secretaries at MFY Legal Services — which helps thousands of low-income New Yorkers each year with housing problems, family issues and discrimination cases — voted on Friday to reject a new contract because the raises were too low and MFY's leadership asked for "givebacks" in exchange for parental leave.

“I’ve been at MFY for 14 years now,” said Jessica Cepin, an administrative assistant who said she was overworked and that the firm needed to hire more secretarial staff. “My basic costs of living keep going up, but my paycheck hasn’t kept up.”

Fifty-six of the firm's 72 workers walked out on Friday, and on Monday morning a couple dozen of them marched in the freezing rain outside their office at 299 Broadway for about 90 minutes, chanting, "Workplace justice is a lie, it doesn't exist at MFY." When they recognized some middle management entering the building, they rushed at them, pointing and shouting, "Shame!"

The unionized MFY employees — represented by the Legal Services Staff Association, part of United Auto Workers Local 2320 — negotiate a new contract every three years, detailing annual raises, health insurance coverage and leave benefits for families and sick employees.

The new contract MFY's management proposed this year would have included at least a 9 percent raise over three years, which was less than the 3.5 percent raise per year the union was seeking. And MFY's contract offered 30 days, or six weeks, of paid parental leave, but the union claimed the demands made in return for the leave were unfair. They said the demands included a push to remove an Affirmative Action recruitment stipulation that limits job advertisements for the first seven days to internal notices and Affinity Bar Associations, which cater to minority lawyers.

The contract was rejected by more than 90 percent of MFY's union members on Friday, representatives said. 

Joseph Rebella, a staff attorney at MFY's Foreclosure Prevention Project, said lawyers need higher raises than MFY is offering.

"An attorney with three years of experience is much more valuable to the organization than a newly admitted attorney with no experience, and is paid more accordingly," he said. 

"MFY's characterization of its offer is like taking a high school student's income from a summer job, comparing it to that student's income out of college, and marveling at how the economy has grown in the last five years."

MFY Executive Director Jeanette Zelhof said in a statement on Friday that the strike would not harm the firm's clients, though it was unclear if the organization would be able to take on new clients.

“Provisions have been made to cover our clients and manage their cases so they continue to move forward,” Zelhof said. "We will meet the obligations of our existing clients and assess our ability to take on new clients as the strike progresses."

Zelhof accused the unionized workers of "needlessly hurt[ing] poor, low-wage and disabled New Yorkers who count on us to help protect their rights."

"That's one of the reasons why we're so disappointed that the union walked away from our fair and excellent contract offer and shut down negotiations," Zelhof said.

Union delegates wanted to meet with MFY management Monday morning but were told MFY's pro bono counsel would be out of the country. A meeting with both sides is slated for Wednesday. Union delegates said they have pickets scheduled everyday until a contract agreement is reached.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the union wanted more days of paid parental leave. In fact, their issue is with "givebacks" requested by MFY executives, not with the numbers of days.