Dun dun (that’s the Law and Order between-scenes sound.) In an interesting and (to me) somewhat surprising move, the public defenders of St. Lawrence County have formed a union. That’s according to the Watertown Daily Times.
Why surprising? Well, I just don’t tend to think of lawyers as a group that would generally be covered by a union (as opposed to, for example, steelworkers.) Clearly, my stereotype in that regard is incorrect, though.
Here’s what’s going on: As county employees, public defenders are paid to work 35 hours a week, and they work many more hours that that. For those hours, they get compensatory (comp) time, but under the current rules that time goes away if it’s not used within 120 days. That meant the attorneys gave back more than 2,000 hours in comp time in 2012 (at 7 hours/day, that’s more than 286 days. Ouch!)
The attorneys aren’t currently represented by a union, but they are treated as if they were members of the Civil Service Employees Union (CSEA) when it comes to the matter of comp time — and that’s how this came to a head.
This fall, the county settled a contract with CSEA that caps comp time at 140 hours (that’s 20 days for those playing at home), and union president Stephen G. Ballan told the paper that was the breaking point for the county’s eight public defenders: “I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was the county’s unilateral decision to take away hundreds of hours of comp time we had already earned…All comp time over 140 hours was just gone. We just thought it wasn’t right.”
The union will represent the eight attorneys at the county’s Public Defenders and Conflict Defenders offices. The county’s Assistant District Attorney’s won’t be part of the union, because the state limits unionization for public employees. As the paper points out, this union brings the number of collective bargaining units at the county level up to six: CSEA, empoloyees of the Solid Waste Department, correctional officers, sheriff’s deputies and a sheriff’s supervisory unit. Given St. Lawrence County’s population of 112,000, this means every resident is now in a county employees’ union. Not really. But it is a lot of unions.