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Queens Chronicle

Legal aid attorneys striking for 2 weeks

Dispute with Legal Services NYC centers on healthcare, retirement

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Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2013 10:30 am

As he tries to fight eviction from the Jackson Heights residence that he has occupied for the past four years, Imran Masood faces a court date and a dilemma. His attorney, one of approximately 220 members of the Legal Services Staff Association, is on strike.

According to his lawyer, Maurice Muir, a senior attorney with Queens Legal Services of NYC for 13 years, every year “we go into contract renewal mode.”

Working without a contract for the past year, the members of QLS, which represents tenants in foreclosure or with other housing issues, are currently in dispute with management over several points, Muir said.

“They want to reduce their contribution to the retirement plan,” Muir said, in reference to Legal Services NYC, the organization of attorneys, paralegals, social workers and support staff that provides over 45,000 low-income New Yorkers with a full range of legal assistance each year.

Ongoing disputes over contributions members must make toward their health coverage prompted Muir to say, “No one knows the mechanics of what’s going on.”

Legal Services NYC cited a reduction in federal funding as a reason to change the benefits its attorneys have.

And the threat of layoffs remains an issue, according to Muir, with the two sides unable to agree upon a ratio in cutbacks between staff and management.

According to Muir, QLS, with approximately 30 employees, has already had to close one of its two offices due to budget constraints, the remaining one being in Jamaica. Muir said the organization is a non-profit which receives funding from the federal, state and city governments, as well as private organizations.

For the past two weeks, members of QLS, along with their counterparts in the other boroughs, have been on strike.

The organization deals with issues ranging from immigration, education and family law to foreclosure prevention, taxation, and Social Security, according to Muir.

“The constituents are not being serviced,” he said. Among his clients are some whom he said are “facing serious problems.”

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Masood explained that he recently went before a judge to plead his case.

“I can’t just leave my apartment and go in the street,” he said he told the judge, explaining that he cannot afford to hire an attorney and that his was on strike.

According to Masood, the judge’s response was, “That’s none of my business.”

“They treated me like a dog,” he said. “They don’t care.”

Facing the prospect of having to appear in court without representation, he said, “When the judge or lawyer speaks out, I’m not familiar with that language.”

While Masood was waiting for his original court date, Muir said, his landlord opened a second case against him.

“They did something sneaky,” Muir said. “I don’t know what it is.”

Masood’s court date for that case is May 31.

“Honestly speaking, I don’t know what to do,” Masood said.

Efforts to contact Legal Services NYC were unsuccessful, but a statement on the group’s web page reads in part, “We are disappointed that Legal Services Staff Association voted to strike rather than accept our proposal to respond to a 50 percent drop in federal funding with necessary changes to healthcare and retirement programs. Without those changes, we will be forced to lay off as many as 50 people by the end of 2014. We are very hopeful that we can return to the bargaining table quickly and resolve this impasse.”

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