SLC public defenders form union, seek changes to comp time policies

The St. Lawrence County Courthouse. Photo: Mark Kurtz

The St. Lawrence County Courthouse. Photo: Mark Kurtz

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.

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8 Comments on “SLC public defenders form union, seek changes to comp time policies”

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  1. Mervel says:

    But salaried professional employees should not be tracking their hours; you work until the job is done. If they want to be treated like hourly workers then they should be made to punch a clock in and out, for lunches everything.

    I think the way to handle it would be to give them a decent salary and not worry about all of this comp time.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Part of the problem, maybe the whole problem, is that state and local governments treat most jobs if not all as jobs paid by the hour.
    Hourly pay makes sense in some jobs but not in others.
    Since lawyers like to bill by the hour, even if the quality of their work sucks, that is how the game is played.
    Fair may be fair but it isn’t always just.
    Without knowing how much they are paid it is hard to judge whether they are getting screwed or the county is getting screwed. It probably varies from attorney to attorney.

  3. Mervel says:

    I don’t believe they get competitive salaries. Its an important job.

  4. SESZOO says:

    I worked hourly jobs up until the last ten yrs . Hourly was good especially with the overtime pay all the way up tax time then not so good . Salary sucked the months of 70-90 hours a week but there were just as many weeks of 30-40 hrs which ended up working out good . All in all everything worked out about even for me , I never had comp time so not quite sure how that works ,do they get taxed somehow on the comp time they earn or do they get that tax free? and is it figured the way overtime pay is at time and a half or more and is it taxed on overtime or straight time . One thing for sure it’s going to be hard to get more money for them out of us all ready overtaxed taxpayers here in St. Lawrence Cty.

  5. Mervel says:

    In my experience comp time is a bit of a scam. I don’t allow it as a manager, if I have employees who are working more than standard hours, I either look at their job duties and change those duties to match a normal work period or look at how efficient they are working.

    My guess is that these guys work an average of 50-60 hours a week sometimes more as the caseload for public defenders is high and there is not enough of them. So they continually rack up these “comp” hours which are just an additional time off you keep in kind of an off the books way, I don’t think it is taxed as you can’t cash it out either. They should either pay them more or look at the job and say we are not taking anymore cases. For our democracy to work you must have access to legal counsel for defendants who cannot afford their own lawyer (most of the defendants in SLC is my bet). It is something I would be in favor of paying more for.

  6. Pat Nelson says:

    Before I retired,St Lawrence County leave time accrual and use was a major part of my job. So, a little information:
    *Comp time is supposed to be the time you would have had off if you hadn’t worked extra. That gets a little tricky, because time worked over 40 hours in a week has to be reimbursed at time-and-a-half. In other words, if the extra hours you worked made 42 hours in the week, if your normal work week is 40 hours, you earn 3 hours comp.
    *The problem with comp time and the reason the Public Defenders rack up so much is that, if your job requires you to work non-standard hours, such as evening town courts, you are still expected to be in the office during standard hours. This can amount 15-20 hours in a week. Their work week is 35 hours, so they can accumulate 20 to 27.5 hours per week. But when can they use those hours? They expire after 120 days and with a work load like that, they are lucky if they can take any time off at all. So conscientious attorneys end up donating their work to the County.

  7. Ken Alger says:

    As others have said, “comp time” is a scam, especially for salaried employees. The concept allows managers to borrow employees’ time and talent with a wink and a promise that they’ll be compensated later with time off. The trouble is, employees are then obligated to schedule their “comp time” in a frenetic work environment where, for salaried staff, 24/7 commitment is expected. The county’s public defenders should be commended for their decision; no one should have to work without rules.

  8. Mervel says:

    It seems with more flexibility in scheduling you could find a solution to this issue. Let some of the PD’s work non-standard hours for starters. The other solution would be to let them accumulate longer than 120 days or let them cash it out at some rate, maybe not at 100% of pay, but say at 75%.

    I think at the end of the day, they are simply underpaid for working a 50-60 hour a week job as a lawyer.

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