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GALs seek pay equity: 'treat us the same as other attorneys who work for the state'.

Attorneys at the Guardian ad Litem Program are so passionate about their work that many have taken pay cuts to give voice to abused and neglected children in dependency court. Their salaries are the lowest attorney salaries in state government and they pay more for health insurance than other state lawyers.

Their boss thinks it's high time they were given raises.

Karen Trautman has been a Florida lawyer for 35 years and took an $8,000 pay cut from Children's Legal Services to be a best interest attorney at the Guardian ad Litem office in Sarasota.

Even with her lengthy experience, she makes $45,000.

Unlike her other state job that paid almost 100 percent of her health insurance, she now pays $50 per month. And she notes that a co-worker with a child pays $180 a month for health insurance.

"I think it sounds terrible for what I do. Just be fair. Treat us the same as other attorneys who work for the state," she said.

Mary Kathleen Clendining supervises 11 attorneys at the GAL Program in Palm Beach County that serves about 1,800 children using more than 500 volunteers. This mother who adopted two foster children, including one with chronic paranoid schizophrenia, took a $10,000 pay cut from her Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel job representing parents in dependency court to come to the GAL Program, because she "wanted to do more advocating to better the system."

She makes $60,000.

"Every single one of my lawyers is here because the job really means something to them. We're the only people who are strictly for the children, making less money, and that makes it seem less important. And it's not," Clendining said.

"I have lost some very good attorneys. A young attorney just left, and she said, 'I love my job. I love what I do. But at this point in my life, it would not be financially responsible to stay. ' It was sad to see her go, but I couldn't offer her more money to keep her here."

Clendining calls GAL work a "job that feeds your soul," but she knows her staff members also need to feed their families.

"Our attorneys are paid less than anyone else," said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the statewide GAL Program.

"We're not seeking equity. We're just seeking to raise their salaries some to reduce turnover."

Abramowitz is seeking $2.7 million for salary and benefits increases so he can adjust the minimum starting salaries for operational and legal staff and "retain excellent staff."

To bolster his case at the Legislature, Abramowitz asked for a compensation analysis by Five Points Technology, Inc., to see if pay raises would improve the program that serves some of Florida's most vulnerable children.

Abramowitz is seeking raises recommended by the salary analysis:

The minimum program attorneys' salary of $41,268 would rise to $45,000, to bring them up to the salary of Department of Children & Families Children's Legal Services attorneys.

A senior attorney for the GAL makes a $45,304 minimum salary. He's hoping to boost that by $5,323 to $50,627.

The minimum supervising attorney's salary of $47,569 would jump $16,965 to $64,534.

The study also recommended increasing health insurance benefits for GAL attorneys.

Abramowitz stresses that he's committed that all of the GAL attorneys will be required to become board certified in juvenile law, a new area of certification that has been approved by The Florida Bar Board of Governors and is currently pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

Among Five Points' findings:

* "GAL attorneys are the only attorneys who do not receive the benefit of paid insurance, when compared to attorneys in the State Personnel System and those in the Justice Administration System," including assistant public defenders and assistant state attorneys. "The first significant difference when compared to attorneys in the JAS pay plan is the JAS attorneys receive almost 100 percent paid insurance benefits and the GAL attorneys do not (the state pays only a portion of insurance costs.)" While average starting salaries for GAL attorneys are similar to state attorneys and public defenders, "it does not account for insurance benefits that range from $600 to $1,800 per year for just health insurance (depending on the type of coverage)."

* Turnover in the GAL Program was 30 percent for program attorneys and 25 percent for supervising attorneys in FY 2013-14, higher than that of assistant public defenders and assistant state attorneys.

* "GAL senior attorney and supervising attorney minimum salaries are significantly below the pay of comparable positions in the State Personnel System--14 percent lower for senior attorneys and 36 percent lower for supervising attorneys. These differences increase dramatically when compared to actual average salaries."

* "Compared to DCF Children's Legal Services attorneys, GAL program attorney current actual average salaries are 8 percent lower than DCF minimums. For senior attorneys, this difference is 11 percent, and for supervising attorneys, the difference is 54 percent."

* A survey of GAL attorneys showed almost half are seeking other jobs because of salary issues. Interviews revealed high student loan payments are a significant concern to many GAL attorneys.

* GAL attorney caseloads are around 150--exceeding the "no more than 100" cases recommended by the ABA, Center on Children and the Law, and National Counsel for Children. They do not have support staff, such as paralegals, as many other state attorney positions do, making the high caseloads even more difficult to manage.

Although the funding he seeks will not bring GAL salaries to equity with other comparable certified attorney positions in state government, Abramowitz said, "It will help stem turnover rates the program is experiencing."

He notes that Florida TaxWatch conservatively estimates the cost of turnover to be 50 percent of the annual salary of lost positions, and that would calculate to at least a $2 million cost in lost productivity, training and development, recruitment costs, and institutional knowledge of those who left the GAL Program in FY 2013-14.

As GAL attorney Trautman said: "We work just as hard as other state attorneys, without the benefits. We are a valuable asset to the court system. The judges rely on us."

Clendining, the GAL supervising attorney, said, "We all know from Law and Order what the state attorney does and what the public defender does. But the nature of what we do, I don't think people understand.

"People don't want to hear about the atrocities that occur to these children on a daily basis. We are not superfluous. We are essential. And because we use so many volunteers, we are the government agency where you get the most bang for your buck."

By Jan Pudlow

Senior Editor

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Author:Pudlow, Jan
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Mar 15, 2015
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