Workers from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender voted to form a union last week, joining the state’s largest public employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers Council 3.
Potential furloughs and other budget cuts driven by the economic downturn, on top of longstanding staff shortages, prompted the unionization effort, public defender staffers said.
“For me, there’s really three reasons: It’s because we are overworked; because we’re underpaid; and it’s because we’ve been without a voice,” said Michal Gross, who represents juvenile clients, for the Charles County public defender’s office.
Gross said in a phone interview that public defenders are constantly being told to “do more with less,” citing understaffed offices, colleagues lost to better-paying gigs and a lack of “voice” when hiring freezes and budget cuts come along, which she said will be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
AFSCME Council 3 represents about 28,000 state workers in Maryland. The Office of the Public Defender has the potential to add 700 non-supervisory workers to the union’s membership, according to an AFSCME news release.
“I’m happy to welcome the employees of the Office of the Public Defender into the AFSCME Council 3 family. Like all Council 3 members they selflessly serve the residents of Maryland every day,” AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said in a statement.
The move to unionize comes as lawyers, social workers, administrative aides and other employees in public defenders’ offices statewide grow frustrated with a workload that is so large, they say, they cannot provide their clients adequate representation and don’t have a voice in decisions related to returning to work during the pandemic.
In a statement, Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe, who leads the office, said he understands the workers’ urgency.
“Our employees are dedicated advocates who fight for our clients every day,” DeWolfe said. “In these exceptionally challenging times, where there are widespread budget cuts and life-threatening risks from COVID, they are now fighting for themselves. We recognize the concerns and have been fighting for our staff every day and are committed to their health and well-being.”
Cyndi Christiani has worked as an assistant public defender in Baltimore City for nearly 15 years. She and her colleagues have heavy caseloads, often 80 to 100 cases per week. She said caseloads have gotten bigger (roughly quadrupled) over the years as staff has been whittled down.
“There were about 25 attorneys at that courthouse [when I started] and we are down to about six attorneys now, and the caseload has not gone down,” she said.
Gross said that she and her colleagues have been afraid of returning to work while the threat of the pandemic remains, and that some people in their office have tested positive for COVID-19 since courts began reopening in June, despite mask mandates put in place by Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), herself a former public defender, applauded the workers’ choice to unionize.
“I’m proud to stand with the attorneys and administrative and support staff who are coming together to form a union at the Office of the Public Defender,” Carter said in a statement. “As a former Public Defender, I’m all too familiar with the resource challenges and chronic-underfunding OPD employees encounter in their jobs. Despite this, they continue to serve with honor to provide justice, liberty, and civil rights to marginalized Marylanders.”