NY Legal Services Support Staff Strike For Higher Pay

By Emily Lever
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Law360 (February 9, 2021, 7:07 PM EST) -- Workers at Mobilization for Justice, a New York City-based legal services nonprofit, went on a one-day strike Tuesday to demand higher pay for nonlawyer staff and a continued right to work from home, saying the organization isn't hewing to its stated principles of social justice when it comes to working conditions.

Mobilization for Justice management routinely underpays nonlawyers in spite of their work experience and plans to force employees to return to the office prematurely, according to the Legal Services Staff Association, a "wall-to-wall" union that represents all MFJ employees, from lawyers to paralegals and nonlegal support staff.

"MFJ management does not seem to understand what 'social justice' means," Orly Rogers-Figueroa, a paralegal in the nonprofit's housing practice, said in a statement. "Their choice not to recognize the value and skills of all their employees, particularly [Black, Indigenous and people of color] workers, demonstrates their superficial commitment to social and racial justice."

Rogers-Figueroa said that despite having 19 years of paralegal experience, the organization put her on the lowest pay scale when she was hired. One of the union's key demands is that support staff be brought on at a pay scale commensurate with their experience, the way attorneys are. Support staff are the most diverse group of employees at the nonprofit, according to the union.

In contract negotiations, the bargaining committee demanded retroactive back pay for staff they say were lowballed, contending that the organization could afford it. While MFJ was in the black for the past nine years, according to its tax forms, the organization ran a deficit in fiscal year 2020, according to the annual report on its website.

"We are fighting for a contract that works for our clients, that works for our lowest paid workers, and that raises the working standards of legal services workers," said Dinah Luck, a housing attorney at the organization. "Management, on the other hand, wants to lead a race to the bottom. By doing so, they refuse to acknowledge that quality work comes from retaining experienced workers and that a social justice organization must ensure justice in its own workplace."

Workers were also striking to continue working from home, saying management wanted to hurry them back to work in May. But like many workers across the legal industry, MFJ's employees have found their footing in remote work, with parents and primary caregivers particularly benefiting from such arrangements, employees told Law360.

Mobilization for Justice provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income New Yorkers in practice areas ranging from children's rights to bankruptcy, foreclosure, employment, housing and tax law. Management used the fact that the organization serves vulnerable clients as an argument to discourage workers from striking, said Ella Abeo, an executive assistant in MFJ's Bronx office.

"It's because we care about the clients and want to do the best work possible for the clients that we decided to go on strike," Abeo told Law360.

"We're right there one-on-one with the clients. ... Every day clients are constantly being threatened to be kicked out of their homes," she said. "It sucks that management decides to put that on us as leverage."

Mobilization for Justice could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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