Unionized lawyers face pink slips

[NOTE: ARTICLE UPDATED BELOW]

Oregon Law Center plans to lay off a third of its unionized workers — while making no commitment to lay off any managers. The non-profit, which provides free civil legal services to low-income people, faces a $1.1 million shortfall in its 2012 budget of about $6.6 million. The shortfall is due principally to a drop in revenues from legal filing fees as fewer lawsuits are filed during the recession. Management’s proposed response is to lay off up to 15 of the 42 union-represented attorneys and paralegals, but with no commitment to share the pain among the organization’s 24 managers and non-union employees.

With eight offices around the state, Oregon Law Center helps clients with landlord-tenant disputes, farmworker wage claims, family law problems and other kinds of civil and administrative matters. Its attorneys, paralegals and support workers belong to the National Organization of Legal Services Workers (NOLSW), an affiliate (Local 2320) of the United Auto Workers, AFL-CIO. They unionized in October 2008 after a senior employee was fired and others were involuntary transferred. Under their first union contract, which runs through March 2013, attorney salaries start at $37,800 a year and rise to $48,315 after 10 years — quite low by the standards of the legal profession. Paralegals and support staff make less than that. Managers make more.

To save jobs and preserve services to the clients, the union is proposing to give up step pay increases, accept monthly furlough days, and reduce the employer’s 6 percent 401(k) contribution by two-thirds. But bargaining unit chair Ilene O’Malley says management hasn’t been willing to agree.

“They’re willing to give up a lot of things they’ve bargained to prevent layoffs,” said NOLSW western region organizer Donis Borks, “but management doesn’t seem interested.”

Borks said Legal Aid Services of Oregon, a sister organization which is also unionized, faces a similar budget cut. There, the proposal is to lay off 14 to 19 of the 78 union-represented lawyers and support staff.

The two groups are governed by a single board of directors, which is expected to make a decision at its Aug. 13 meeting. Layoff notices would be sent out the following week, taking effect mid to late October.

In an Aug. 5 letter to Oregon Law Center director David Thornburgh, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain urged sitting down with the union to work out cost-saving measures together.

 

UPDATE: At its meeting, the Board declined to accept any offers of concessions to save jobs, and instead resolved to lay off five union-represented Oregon Law Center employees and one manager, cut another manager down to less than full-time, and leave five vacant positions unfilled. Layoff notices went out the following week, effective October 15. O’Malley, 62, told the Labor Press she plans to take voluntary layoff, which will result in sparing the job of at least one co-worker.

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