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At Georgia Legal Services, lawyer pay is decided not in closed meetings among partners, but in contract negotiations between management and the lawyers’ union. The current contract for lawyers and support staff with Georgia Legal Services is set to expire on Jan. 31, and Tera Reese-Beisbier, president of the Employees Association of Georgia Legal Services, says she would like to have a new contract in place before then. And she wants considerable improvements in pay and benefits. The last contract was negotiated two years ago, and now sets salaries for starting lawyers at $31,000, for paralegals at $18,500 and for secretaries at $14,600. “A lot of our secretaries qualify for child-care assistance, food stamps and Medicaid,” Reese-Beisbier says. “You’re here for a reason. You’re not here to make the big money, but you do need to make a living wage,” Reese-Beisbier says. The union may ask for an across-the-board increase of $5,000 to $6,000. Phyllis J. Holmen, executive director of the Georgia Legal Services Program, says the agency will consider raising pay. “I think there’s a possibility that salaries will go up,” she says. But she declines to offer specifics. The Federal Legal Services Corp., which funds legal aid programs nationwide, may receive an allocation of about $330 million, Holmen says. That would translate into about a 4 percent increase for the GLS budget, Holmen says. Georgia Legal Services offers free legal aid to low-income individuals in the counties outside of metro Atlanta. This includes assistance in such civil matters as housing, health care, employment, consumer and family law. The agency unionized in 1986 under the auspices of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, a subsection of the United Auto Workers. Union members include paralegals and legal secretaries, as well as staff lawyers. “Pretty much everyone in the trenches is unionized,” Reese-Beisbier says. The statewide agency counts about 210 people in 13 statewide offices, Reese-Beisbier says. Roughly 85 people are management, she says, leaving about 125 non-management workers. Of that group, Reese-Beisbier says, about 45 belong to the union. Another big issue, Reese-Beisbier says, is retirement and pensions. The current plan, she says, is a tax-deferred annuity, to which the agency contributes up to $1,000 a year, in addition to whatever an employee puts into the account. After nine years of service, the agency augments employee contributions with $2,000 annually. The union, she says, would like to have some kind of program in which the agency would match employee contributions. Holmen says the agency will bring in former Georgia Legal Services lawyer M. Ayres Gardner to help management lawyers with the negotiations. Reese-Beisbier says she hopes to begin negotiations by early December, and have the bargaining concluded by the end of January. If the sides run into problems, she says, they will ask to extend the current contract. “Status quo is better than total chaos,” she says. The union, Reese-Beisbier says, desperately wants to avoid a strike. The agency has never had a strike, she says, and she would like to keep it that way. However, if that were to happen, she says, striking lawyers would take the cases that need their immediate attention home with them, and would continue to show up for court. But they would not accept any new cases, nor would they come to the office to help with other matters, she says. But she and Holmen both said relations between union and management are generally pretty good. “We’ve never had anything like a bitter labor dispute,” Holmen says. “I don’t think anyone’s even ever thrown a temper tantrum.” And Reese-Beisbier says the union is keeping in mind the realities of a public-service budget when making its requests. “We’re obviously not going to say, ‘We want a hot tub in our office,’ ” she says.

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