Philly’s public defenders say staff pay inequity is a racial justice issue — and they need $5.8M to help fix it
One 16-year employee can't afford to live in the city on her current salary and works a second job on weekends to make ends meet.
Barbara Thompson has worked full time in administrative roles for Philadelphia’s public defender’s office for nearly 16 years.
But she can’t even afford to live in Philadelphia.
With an annual salary of $32,000, Thompson, 70, wakes up every day at 4 a.m. to catch a bus and then a train for the 90-minute commute from her home in New Castle, Del., to the Center City offices of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
On the weekends, she works a second job cleaning homes and babysitting. Her retirement prospects are grim, she said. Defender employees are not part of the city’s pension plan, and because her salary is so low, she hasn’t been able to save up to stop working anytime soon.
“The commute itself is tiring, but I’m a survivor and I’m a fighter, so I have to do what I have to do,” she said.
Thompson’s experience — which is not unique among her colleagues — is one reason the Defender Association has requested a 12% budget increase, or $5.8 million, this year in the hope of paying employees more equitably, said chief defender Keisha Hudson.
The Defender Association employs 468 people, half of them lawyers who provide free legal representation to adults and juveniles facing criminal charges, as well as cases involving dependent or neglected children. Defenders represent people in about 70% of the criminal cases opened in Philadelphia each year, and more than 85% of their clients are people of color, many of whom could not afford legal counsel otherwise. Pennsylvania is the only state that provides no state funding for public defenders, leaving each county to fund its own office.
Nearly half of the association’s nonlegal staff members — many are decades-long employees working as clerks and social workers — make less than $40,000 annually, according to a recent internal salary analysis. The starting pay for administrative staff is $29,000, an amount that qualifies a family of four for SNAP benefits (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps).
On the legal side of things, public defenders make about 89 cents on the dollar compared with lawyers in the District Attorney’s Office, the analysis showed, with a defender’s starting salary about $7,000 less than a starting prosecutor’s.
The Defender Association’s request for a $5.8 million increase would bring its overall city funding up to $54.2 million. If the increase is approved by Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council, about $3.8 million of the new money would go toward raising nonlegal staffers’ income, and $2 million would bring parity to the pay of legal staff.
The goal, Hudson said, is to make sure no administrative employees make less than $40,000 a year. Increasing lawyers’ pay, she said, would make them feel more valued and invested in their work, and improve retention.
“If our staff are not compensated fairly, if they have to hold one or more other positions in order to support their families, if they’re looking to leave the organization — and many people in 2021 chose to leave the organization — that really has an impact on our ability to represent our clients well,” Hudson said.
Last week, City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and 12 colleagues — who together have the ability to override the mayor — sent Kenney a letter in support of the budget increase, and called the issue a matter of racial justice.
“If we could find close to $24 million for the Police Department, then surely we can support those individuals who are fighting day in and day out for our most vulnerable individuals who come in contact with our criminal justice system,” Johnson said.
“If we say Black lives matter then we need to show it in the budget,” he said.
A spokesperson for the administration declined to comment on the Defender Association’s funding, saying only that the budget process remains underway.
Hudson said about 70% of her office’s nonlegal staff are people of color and many are longtime employees. Not compensating them fairly, she said, and forcing them to work second jobs to make ends meet is a racial issue.
“They are working nights, they are working weekends in order to support themselves,” she said. “Raising their salary to at least be comparable to other city agencies is one way to be able to address that racial disparity.”
The Defender Association’s legal staff of about 200 is unionized, but its other employees are not. Hudson said improving pay has been a top priority since she became chief defender in November. Persuading the city to add her employees to the pension plan is also a goal, but that’s a battle for another budget season, she said.
Meanwhile, employees such as Thompson are holding out hope for a raise. As a single mother who raised three children, Thompson said she’s worked two jobs all her life. She joined the Defender Association in 2006 with a starting salary of $18,000, and in 2007, unable to pay bills and on the precipice of foreclosure, she sold the Francisville home where she’d lived for 57 years and moved to Delaware.
She currently works as a switchboard operator, transferring incoming calls from clients and the public to legal resources. She loves her job and is proud of the life she’s built, she said, but there is no doubt that raising her salary to $40,000 would drastically improve her quality of life.
Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.