Allegheny County’s unionized public defenders and assistant district attorneys say contract negotiations between their bargaining unit and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office are at an impasse.
"Technically we are in negotiations, but to call them negotiations would not be an accurate use of that term,” Guillermo Perez, a United Steel Workers organizer working with the county attorneys, tells Pittsburgh City Paper in a Zoom interview. “Unfortunately, the county isn’t bargaining in good faith. Frankly, they’re not bargaining at all.”
Perez says the union and the county attended an unsuccessful bargaining session in early August, where members were presented with an incomplete proposal that they didn't consider to be a serious good-faith gesture.
Attorneys in the bargaining unit say the most important issue they hope to address in their new contract is the notably low starting salary for public defenders and assistant district attorneys in Allegheny County of $45,000 per year.
According to a Labor Day tweet by Lauren Leiggi, a public defender, the district attorney's office has this year lost 27 attorneys while the public defender's office has lost 13.
“People want to stay, but they can’t because of our low pay,” she tweeted.
Perez says it's a "huge problem” for either office to find qualified applicants willing to work for the current salaries.
Taylor Corn, a public defender, says both the district attorney and public defender offices are seriously understaffed, hurting both victims and defendants by slowing the movement of cases, extending pre-trial incarcerations and delaying verdicts. In Philadelphia, Corn says district attorney understaffing has meant that police officers have stood in for prosecutors in preliminary hearings, which is not a job for which the police are trained or qualified.
Although City Paper was not able to independently verify these numbers, long-time public defender Patrick Sweeney says Fayette County pays $55,000 per year and Washington County pays $65,000 to entry-level attorneys working for the public defender or district attorney.
Based on a City Paper analysis of Philadelphia County salary data, 99% of its assistant district attorneys make at least $63,000 per year. Dauphin County is currently looking to hire an entry-level assistant public defender for $59,134.40 annually.
Corn says most of her colleagues have second and third jobs to make ends meet. But even a new side hustle is not always enough, she says, especially since attorneys in the PD and DA's offices are prohibited from running an outside practice in their off-hours.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that does not allocate any state funds to pay for public defense. It’s entirely up to each county to fund and run its own Office of the Public Defender and there is no higher oversight.
The bargaining unit wants the county to set a starting salary of $65,000 for attorneys in both offices, which they say is more in line with other counties in the state.
“Average would be nice,” says Ken Harris, an assistant district attorney.
Sweeney says there are 95 district attorneys and 64 public defenders in their bargaining unit, although the OPD has 11 clerks-for-hire who will hopefully pass the bar this fall. The unit also includes six court records employees and 42 medical examiner employees.
Union representatives say the county’s inability to attract and retain enough qualified public defenders or assistant district attorneys has wide-reaching consequences for the public.
“Everyone who lives in the county is impacted by what’s happening with these negotiations,” Perez says.
Research compiled by county public defenders shows that strategic investments in public defense can decrease the amount spent on incarceration.
“Higher pay for line public defenders at the OPD will attract more and better candidates and increase their rate of retention, leading to further reductions to the county’s costs in running the ACJ—and the rest of the justice system—over time,” reads the unpublished report provided to City Paper.
Perez says all they want is the chance to negotiate their contract in good faith.
“Due process and public safety, that’s really what this is about. And this county executive doesn’t seem to care about either one” Perez says.
County spokesperson Amie Downs says the county is bargaining in good faith and will continue to do so.
“We bargain with all of our labor partners in good faith and will continue to do so, including this bargaining unit. We all want to reach a resolution that benefits our employees and our taxpayers," Downs tells City Paper in an emailed statement. "The work that these individuals do on behalf of our residents is an important part of our county operations and we continue to remain focused on ensuring that our employees have a good wage and benefits, while also making certain that residents receive the services upon which they rely.”
UPDATE: This story was updated on Fri., Sept. 16 at 9:30 a.m. to include a statement from the county.