Monday, August 31, 2009

Legal Services to the Poor Threatened

WEST POINT, Miss. – Nancy Jones, 54, mother of three, grandmother of six, worked 32 years at the Sara Lee Foods plant before it shut down in 2007 and took 1,220 jobs with it. She got another job at a local Weenie World, and then it shut down. “We were out in the street, looking for a job, unemployed for eight months,” she said.
She found work again through a temporary job service, and that lasted until the next round of layoffs. From October to this past January, she survived on unemployment checks. Then she got a letter from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. You are not eligible for checks, the letter said. You owe the state $4,100.
“I was already poor,” she said. “A lot of us out there don’t have no job, no money.”
Jones, who lives in a county with a 20.1 percent unemployment rate, had no idea she was supposed to register again with the temp service. So she didn’t, and that put her in hock to the state. Enter the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services to the rescue. “I know I didn’t have money to pay for an attorney. … I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
She was one of 31 laid-off workers caught in the same vise, owing nearly $85,000 to the state because they were deemed to be voluntarily unemployed. The NMRLS’s team of lawyers and paralegals not only restored their checks but got the claim removed, too.
That kind of service to the poor—more desperately needed today than ever—is now being threatened as a result of the NMRLS Board of Directors’ recent decision to lay off agency workers, slash wages 17 to 19 percent, eliminate needed programs such as the housing unit that aided those facing eviction, and take half its small staff of lawyers off courtroom duty and put them on fulltime “hotline” telephone duty.
Funded through a variety of federal and state grants, including the so-called Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) grant from the Mississippi Bar Foundation, the agency covers 39 counties across northern Mississippi with just two attorneys and a small staff of paralegals and secretaries at each of its five branch offices. It helps clients with food stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, evictions, and other needs.
Changes in the funding formula of the IOLTA grants brought a windfall of $700,000 to the agency in 2008 but then quickly dropped to $80,000 this year, resurrecting a long-simmering fiscal crisis and calls for cutbacks.
NMRLS Executive Director Ben Thomas Cole II said the downturn in the economy has affected lawyers’ fees and thus funds coming into the agency. “We don’t have the money to pay for the people. We have to find ways to cut back.”
Nebra Porter, an attorney in the agency’s West Point office and also president of the union local representing NMRLS workers, has strongly protested the cuts and urged the board to consider alternatives, such as trimming back the work week to four days. She also called for an independent forensic audit of the agency’s finances. The board rejected these options. Negotiations are underway between the agency and the union that will determine just how deep the cuts will go.
With these cuts, “there’s no way we can effectively serve you,” Porter told a crowd of 50 or so who gathered recently at a union hall in West Point to discuss the issue.
Many of them traveled by bus the following Saturday to attend a four-hour hearing by the board at its Oxford headquarters.
“It’s like we’re living in a Third World in some of these small towns in Mississippi,” West Point activist Terry Buffington told the board. “People without lights for two to three months, senior citizens with their lights out. If you make this move, you’re taking us back to the ‘60s.”
The board rejected such pleas, but veteran paralegal Henry Boyd didn’t let its members leave without a warning. “You’ve got the wolves out there waiting for the NMRLS to go down. Who’s going to serve these people? Let’s don’t cut our help to poor folks.”

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