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‘Every Lawyer in My Unit Is Drowning’: New York Civil Attorneys Strike After Eight Months Without a Contract

Attorneys with New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides civil legal representation to thousands of New Yorkers navigating the government's arcane courts systems, are striking as they see workloads increase with no commensurate raises.

6:16 PM EST on February 21, 2023

(Hell Gate)

As Hell Gate reported last October, nonprofit legal organizations around the city are losing staff from burnout, especially in civil legal units, just as eviction cases in courthouses are beginning to skyrocket with the end of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium. The CITY reported that less than 10 percent of eligible tenants are receiving legal representation due to lack of resources. 

But the lawyers tasked with handling these cases often find themselves bogged down in the courtroom, constantly playing catch-up on the torrent of cases they're handling. And for the past eight months, attorneys at New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit that receives city funding to handle legal cases in civil court, are doing so without a contract—as their co-workers burn out and leave in droves. 

On Tuesday hundreds of attorneys and support staff at NYLAG kicked off a two-day strike, marching in front of their offices at 100 Pearl Street. The lawyers, have been represented by UAW Local 2325 since they unionized in 2019, say that blame can be assigned to multiple parties: even as the City has pushed its own right-to-counsel programs to a breaking point, NYLAG's management has been refusing to offer a new contract that keeps up with inflation, or sets caps on the number of cases each attorney can handle. 

"The courts continue to be overloaded and are trying to push as many evictions through as possible," said Benjamin Neuhaus, a NYLAG attorney who works in Manhattan housing court. "We're overwhelmed, every lawyer in my unit is drowning, and we can barely meet the ethical obligations to our clients as is. And right now, the City and NYLAG want to increase that burnout."

Chart by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) in collaboration with the Right to Counsel Coalition. Data source: NYS Office of Court Administration via the Housing Data Coalition

Since January of 2022, at least 36 Legal Aid civil attorneys have left their positions, a number that represents 14 percent of all attorneys in the group’s civil branch, which takes on both housing and immigration cases, Hell Gate found back in October. The rate of departures at NYLAG has been about the same, staff said, with outer-borough offices hit especially hard.

According to the union, NYLAG management offered workers minimal raises, which for some would start at just one percent, depending on experience, while also increasing healthcare contributions for workers. They say that management's caseload proposal would functionally require attorneys to work even more hours than they're currently contracted for each week, and the previsions are accompanied by exceptions that would render it meaningless.

"We can't keep doing this work if it's not sustainable," said Sthelyn Romero, an attorney with NYLAG's immigration unit. "The increases that our management are offering are not enough to pay the rent, it's not enough to help people get the mental health care that they need. This job is mentally taxing, emotionally draining. People are leaving because the cases are so high and the morale is so low." 

NYLAG did not respond to a request for comment about the strike. 

Workers on strike outside of 100 Pearl on Tuesday, February 21st. (Hell Gate)

The strike comes at a time of turmoil for the City's "right-to-counsel" programs. While the de Blasio administration embraced a series of programs that provided free legal counsel to New Yorkers who qualified—the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which gave representation to people facing deportation, and the program providing lawyers to people facing eviction—rising caseloads have hamstrung the programs. 

Legal aid groups have called on the City's courts to impose a slowdown of eviction cases to allow tenants to have time to arrange for representation. The City's own data shows that over 80 percent of tenants represented by a right to counsel lawyer were able to stay in their homes.

According to staff, management at NYLAG is saying it's saving unspent money for a rainy day, and blaming City Hall for the organization's inability to offer higher pay and hire more staff.

"They signed a bunch of contracts with the City that were, perhaps, ill-advised," said Neuhaus, explaining that with the rush of evictions following the end of the COVID-19 moratorium, lawyers who are required to provide representation simply can't keep up. "They are saying they don't have the money to pay for more lawyers, and they have contractual obligations to provide to the City. So you end up with massive turnover at this office, and training a new lawyer is incredibly difficult, [and] they can't take full caseloads." 

City Hall has refused to call for any slowdown in housing court, and strangely scheduled the City's annual right to counsel public meeting for this coming Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. It's a virtual meeting, allegedly due to COVID-19. (Which is a strange shift given the City's current "it's all good," take on COVID precautions!)

NYLAG attorneys will be keeping their eyes on the City's upcoming budget negotiations, and whether the City will bolster their ranks. But they'll be paying closer attention to what their own management is doing as the organization continues to bleed staff. If NYLAG won't make workers a better offer, Neuhaus says that lawyers will go back on strike again. 

As he put it, "Something has to give, and it shouldn't be people who are just trying to make a living wage and help people." 

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