Queens Defenders Fires Two Pro-Union Employees

Amid an ongoing union election at the Queens indigent defense law firm, two outspoken union supporters were fired without warning.

Sam Mellins   ·   February 11, 2021
ALAA picket at Legal Aid Society offices regarding the termination of an employee, April 2017. | Courtesy of ALAA
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Published in partnership with the Queens Daily Eagle.

Two employees of the indigent defense law firm Queens Defenders were fired on Monday, less than two months after the staff announced a union drive with supermajority support.

Both employees, social worker Betsy Vasquez and attorney Anna Avalone, are outspoken supporters of the ongoing union drive at Queens Defenders. Pro-union employees and a union organizer alleged that the firings were an illegal retaliation for their support of the union.

“Anna and I have been some of the most vocal people in support of the union,” Vasquez told New York Focus. “Clearly my employer did not take kindly to that—because now I’m fired.”

The Queens Defenders Union announced its drive for recognition as a chapter of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA) in December, claiming the support of 90 percent of eligible employees and multiple Queens elected officials.

Management at Queens Defenders has strenuously opposed the union drive, New York Focus reported last month. Despite that opposition, executive director Lori Zeno said in a January interview that the firm’s leadership did not intend to penalize union supporters. “If they really want a union and they vote for a union, it is what it is. I’m not going to start punishing people,” she said.

Employees say that’s exactly what she did. 

Vasquez said she was called in to an unexpected meeting on Monday afternoon at which Zeno informed her that she was fired. Zeno said that her termination was “performance-based” but provided no evidence of subpar professional conduct, Vasquez added.

Since she began working at Queens Defenders in June 2017, Vasquez said, no one in management had taken issue with her work or threatened disciplinary action. During the pandemic, Vasquez helped the agency organize a food pantry in Far Rockaway and was one of the few employees to continuously work in person, she said. “Management knows that they can count on me,” she said.

Prior to their terminations, Vasquez had met with a state Assemblymember to discuss the union drive and had advocated for unionization in staff meetings, and Avalone had spoken to a news site in support of the union, ALAA organizer Alexi Shalom said.

“I wanted to join the union because it’s our right. As defenders, we also have the right to be defended in our workplace,” Vasquez said. “It creates a space for more transparency, which we don’t have right now, and better pay for us. It gives us more collective bargaining power, which would really distribute power, so that it’s not only the people at the top that are making decisions. Everyone will have a voice. Everyone will be protected.”

On Jan. 4, management held an all-staff meeting to discourage unionization. In making the case against a union, which she called a “mob-like group,” Zeno emphasized that employees of Queens Defenders already enjoy outstanding job security. 

“You get to be part of this QD family as long as you want,” Zeno said at the meeting. “In 25 years, five attorneys and one social worker have been let go … none of them were surprised. They had all been given warnings and chances to deal with whatever the issues were.”

“To me, that’s better job security than a union,” she added.

Asked about Zeno’s comments, Vasquez said, “I was not given any kind of warning. And that statement is exactly why we need a union.”

Zeno did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, and Queens Defenders said that it does not comment on internal HR matters.

Shalom said that ALAA believes the terminations were “retaliatory firings” that violated the federal prohibition on penalizing employees for participating in union organizing.

ALAA plans to file charges against Queens Defenders with the National Labor Relations Board and request that the Board order the agency to reinstate Vasquez and Avalone with full back pay, Shalom said.

“We hope and expect that the NLRB will uphold the rights of our employees to unionize without fear of coercion or loss of employment, as per the National Labor Relations Act,” he added.

Social worker Emily Duran, a supporter of the union, said that the firings were “shocking” to her and other Queens Defenders employees. “They’re two colleagues with a really strong commitment to this work, and good working relationships with other staff members. The fact that this happened when we are in the process of sending back ballots, that’s a bit intimidating,” she said. 

But pro-union employees remain undeterred, Duran said. “It just strengthens what we’re doing right now and our instinct to support one another in the work that we do by forming the union,” she said, “and ultimately having that be a positive impact on the services that we’re providing to our clients.”

On January 8, the union reached an agreement with management to conduct a mail-in union election from January 26 to February 16. The results of that election will be announced in early March. Both Vasquez and Avalone had cast their votes, which will now be disqualified.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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