Every now and then, even the most mundane newspaper article is intriguing if you allow yourself to read outside the lines. 

Today’s Delaware County Daily Times presents an article on how the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board is accusing Delaware County and the Public Defender’s office of breaking bargaining rules. It’s a story of how the labor union folks are attempting to protect employees from unfair moves made by their bosses. 

This stuff happens all the time in workplaces across America. The benefit of paying union dues is worker protection against any signs that the contract between the workers and management is being broken. That’s what’s going on at the Media courthouse between the public defenders (the union covered workers) and their boss, Chris Welsh.

There’s so much to unpack here. The simplest matter to understand is that Chris Welsh changed a few policies and the union thinks it should have come through them first for approval. No one should argue that the union has a right to challenge policy changes in the workplace. There are well establish processes for working these kinda issues out.

Here are some of the things I learned from this article:

Starting Salary

A Public Defender’s starting salary in Delaware County in $37,000. That is very close to my starting salary coming out of undergrad in 1982. Who would think that someone coming out of law school would settle for a $37,000 job?

Public Defenders are the lawyers assigned to folks who can’t afford a lawyer. Chris Welsh came to Chester not long after being hired to speak to the community where he shared that most of the clients they represent are black and poor. Will an attorney earning $37,000 and burdened with a large case load represent his client as well as a private attorney earning a lot more salary and carrying less of a case load? How well can a new $37,000 attorney right out of school represent their client against a well staffed District Attorney office? 

Pay Raise

Chris Welsh recognizes that in order to be competitive with other neighboring Pennsylvania counties, he has to offer prospective attorneys a competitive salary. So, he took it upon himself to raise the salaries to $53,000 for not only the new attorney’s but to anyone who wasn’t at the $53,000 mark already. The union isn’t saying they disagree these folks need a raise, they just would rather Chris Welsh and the union sit down together to figure the new salaries out.

Bar Exam

Chris Welsh hired 5 new attorneys and paid them $53,000 but a couple failed the bar exam and got their salaries reduced to $33,000. Passing the bar exam is no easy task and many lawyers take them multiple times in order to pass. It’s kind of safe to assume that the lawyers from the top of their classes, and especially from the top schools, probably pass the bar at a higher rate than lawyers not at the top of their class. This is sort of my way of saying that public defenders normally aren’t getting the top notch lawyers coming out of school considering private practice pays a lot more and big salaries help pay those school loans off faster.

The union doesn’t seem too happy about the how this pay reduction system is working either and would like a sit down with Chris Welsh to work together on this. 

Prohibit Secondary Employment

Chris Welsh wants to raise salaries while insisting public defenders don’t take on any outside legal work. The newspaper says, ‘he believes public defenders should be 100% focused on their indigent clients and that he cannot properly check for conflicts or correctly manage workloads if he does not know what other work his employees might be taking on.’

The union would like to sit down with Chris Welsh to work this issue out, too. 

Secondary employment is an interesting issue. In this case, Chris Welsh sees it as a potential distraction to the work he wants his public defenders to perform. It seems he wants to eliminate potential conflict of interest issues. 

This reminds me of my early days in the corporate world where bosses would have a fit if they learned you had a side job, even if it had nothing to do with your normal 9-to-5. I could be an engineer by day, but God forbid if I sold men’s clothes at night at the local mall. Back then, many jobs frowned on ‘moonlighting’ as it was considered an insult to your main employer that you would have to supplement your income by working somewhere else. 

These days, people working 2 and 3 jobs is almost normal. It’s the only way to keep food on the table. On the flip side, with the pandemic and work-at-home becoming normal for office workers, some have found that they can easily work 2 or 3 full time work-at-home jobs and are earning ridiculous incomes in industries like information technology and software development. 

And, sometimes, working side jobs is considered an advantage like in the case of Nafis Nichols and those who support his appointment as Receiver to the Chester-Upland School District. It’s his work, not only with the city of Chester, but with the multiple municipalities he provides financial service consulting to that the judge wrote in his order as a compelling factor that qualified him to be appointed. There was no one in Chester City government who took the same position as Chris Welsh that Chester finance workers should be forbidden to take on outside work for fear of distraction, conflict of interest, or reduced productivity to the job they were hired to do for the city. In Nichol’s case, the side jobs he had while working as Chester’s Chief Financial Officer worked to his advantage.

Conclusion

My guess is that Chris Welsh and the union folks will have a sit down and negotiate a deal on public defender salaries and their ability to do side work. As with most negotiations, they’ll probably be some give and take on both sides to come up with a reasonable solution.

Reasonable to me would be a pay increase for the public defenders to be competitive to what other counties pay around here. Without it, we will either not get enough lawyers or not get enough good lawyers representing the poorest people in our county. 

Anyone with a bleeding heart toward criminal justice has to want to see those who can least afford a lawyer get assigned a good public defender. Bad representation has resulted in bad outcomes for too many people just because of their social class and race. A $37,000 starting salary for a lawyer will almost guarantee they aren’t getting anywhere near as fair a shot in court (or a plea) than those who can afford lawyers making the big bucks.