Representatives from the bargaining unit covering public defenders and district attorneys pose at the 2022 Pittsburgh Labor Day Parade with signs demanding fair wage (Image via Pittsburgh City Paper).
By Jordana Rosenfeld
PITTSBURGH — 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, told Pittsburgh City Paper in a Zoom interview. “Unfortunately, the county isn’t bargaining in good faith. Frankly, they’re not bargaining at all.”
Perez said 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 deputy 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 said 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, extended 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 percent 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 said 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 county’s law offices are prohibited from running an outside practice in their off-hours.
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