Maryland’s public defenders have announced their intent to unionize. The lawyers and their support staff said unionizing will help ease the challenges of enormous caseloads and improve working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic in the courtroom and beyond.
They are organizing with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, the largest union for state government employees.
Michal Gross, an assistant public defender who handles juvenile cases, can often be found in schools wrangling to have her clients’ special education needs met, working with their parents during moments of crisis and finding them safe places to sleep on top of courtroom duties.
“I'm trying to help them access whatever services and whatever support they need that the system has denied them,” she said.
Gross says unionizing will allow her and her colleagues to address the office’s chronic underfunding, overwhelming caseloads and shrinking staff numbers.
The effort to unionize had been in the works for years, but had crossed the finish line during the social upheaval of the last few months.
“A lot of our concerns were exacerbated by the global pandemic in part, and also by the racial justice movement that has really risen out of the death of George Floyd,” Gross said.
Gross and other public defenders said their problems with management have been emphasized by the pandemic. For example, when stay at home orders went into effect in early spring, some public defenders had to appear in court, while some private lawyers could appear via video conference. The office also struggled with providing enough PPE for its workers.
The unionization effort covers more than 700 employees, from lawyers to social workers to administrators.
Amanda Wong, a public defender in Baltimore County’s circuit court, said attorneys’ enormous caseloads affect support staff, too.
“If the parties aren't getting the support that they need from the administrative assistance and their paralegals and their secretaries, we can't be the best lawyers that we can be,” Wong said. “We're pretty much just triaging when we go into court. And that's not the best that we can be.”
On some days, Wong juggles 30 cases.
“I think that is another reason why we're unionizing, because we have an increase in caseload,” Wong said. “The criminal justice system is still prosecuting people even though we're struggling in this pandemic and we're underfunded.”
Conditions and funding vary greatly from county to county, so Marylanders in different regions may have greatly varying quality of legal representation, Wong said. She hopes union support will ensure a standard of quality across the state.
In a statement, Paul DeWolfe, the Public Defender of Maryland, called his employees “dedicated advocates who fight for our clients every day.”
“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,” DeWolfe said.
Because OPD staffers are state employees, their next step isn’t sitting down with management and hammering out a contract, but meeting with management to resolve day-to-day disputes.
Then, they will have to appear before the General Assembly in Annapolis to win enhanced rights and the ability to collectively bargain.