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Public Defenders Office dealing with collective bargaining fallout

The Wisconsin State Public Defenders Office doesn’t expect a mass exodus of attorneys and staff if legislation passes that would effectively eliminate collective bargaining rights for government employees.

But SPD Chair Daniel M. Berkos acknowledged that some losses are likely as a result of the proposed changes that seek to increase employee contributions to pensions and health care costs.

“There probably will be some who truly cannot deal with the cuts,” he said. “I think they will even affect support staff more than attorneys because they are in a lower pay range.”

The SPD employs about 375 staff attorneys and an additional 200-plus staff.

Protests are ongoing at the state Capitol in Madison over Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal that would force public workers to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage.

Walker argued that both increases are “modest” compared with those in the private sector.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the legislation Thursday.

During the past two days, teachers in several counties have staged walk-outs in opposition of the bill, but the SPD has not engaged in anything that substantial.

“No, there has been no such walkout,” said SPD communications director Randy Kraft. 
He acknowledged that “some staff” have used furlough time or leave time to express their concerns, but that the agency continues to fulfill its obligations to clients throughout the state.

While the starting salary for a state public defender is $49,000, Berkos said the bill still prompted a sense of financial panic for some.

“‘I can’t afford to make a house payment and have to find somewhere else to work’” is the gut reaction,” he said. “I understand that, but they make a pretty good wage and benefits are still good.”

— Jack Zemlicka

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