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At the end of the day Friday, lawyers at one of the city’s biggest public interest law organizations, Legal Services, were struggling with management over salary issues and on the verge of a strike. If negotiations fail, it will be the third time that Legal Services has hit the picket lines in a decade.

At issue are pay hikes that leave Legal Services attorneys making less money than their counterparts at the bigger and richer Legal Aid Society. Raises are also set up to reward newer employees more than the long-timers, which rankles Legal Services lifers. Like Legal Aid, the organization provides free legal assistance for poor people on a range of civil cases, including housing cases, consumer issues, government benefits and family law.

As of Friday morning, management has offered a payment package that gives attorneys with four years experience a healthy seven percent raise; lawyers with either more or fewer years on the job get around four percent. For longtime non-legal staff, where salaries top out at $36,000, increases would be a paltry 1.36 percent.

“How many organizations can you think of where you get penalized for staying?” asked union co-president Lis Fiekowsky. “People devote their lives to this. Why penalize them?”

Fiekowsky also pointed out that this year, the usually cash-strapped Legal Services is getting an extra $1.7 million dollop of state money that Governor George Pataki had vetoed out of the budget in 1998.

“The fact that we already have guaranteed wage increases built into this third year of our contract has to be taken into consideration,” countered Dale Johnson, Legal Services’ executive director. As for the additional state cash, he said, “It’s not found money that’s uncommitted. We had expenses which increased. Finally …we have to try to keep our commitment to the State Legislature that we would take steps to restore services eliminated as a result of that cut. We want to be able to fill positions that hadn’t been filled because of the loss of funding.”

The deadline to work out these salary issues is the end of the day today. If the union does strike, said Fiekowsky, current cases won’t be dropped, but new case intake will be put on hold.

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