Queens officials condemn ‘retaliatory’ firing of two Queens Defenders as employees vote to unionize

queens defenders press conference
Screenshot of ALAA UAW Local 2325 virtual press conference with Queens elected officials on Feb. 17. (Photo courtesy of ALAA UAW Local 2325)

Several Queens elected officials joined the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA) UAW Local 2325 and Queens Defenders staff to condemn the firing of two Queens Defenders employees for what they call a “retaliation” for their union activities, on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Staff at the Queens Defenders, a nonprofit legal defense group that’s represented Queens residents who can’t afford attorneys for 25 years, have organized to join the UAW Local 2325 union since Dec. 16. Ninety percent of eligible employees signed union authorization cards, according to a New York Focus report — but that number as well as calls to unionize have been harshly disputed by Lori Zeno, Queens Defenders’ co-founder and executive director.

Last week, Queens Defenders social worker Betsy Vasquez and attorney Anna Avalone, two outspoken supporters of union organizing, were fired. The firing comes at a time when employees were expected to receive and return union-election ballots to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), following management’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the union.

On Wednesday, ALAA held a press conference to call attention to the firings and demand the two employees be reinstated with full back-pay.

“[Queens Defenders’] union-busting activities cannot go unchecked and they must be held accountable for their actions,” Lisa Ohta, president of the ALAA UAW Local 2325, said. “It is particularly egregious that she targeted two women of color for exercising their right to unionize. We stand in solidarity with all of our members at Queens Defenders and demand immediate reinstatement and full back-pay for our wrongfully terminated colleagues.”

In a statement to QNS from Queens Defenders’ management, they said that while they do not divulge confidential personnel information out of respect for their former employees privacy, they can say with certainty that “neither the NLRB election nor employees’ opinions about the union played any role in the action taken involving these two employees.”

“And we would like to emphasize that they were certainly not terminated for being women of color. We take immense pride in the fact that the over 175 people who choose to work at Queens Defenders are a direct reflection of the enormous diversity of the borough we serve – over 50 percent of our staff are people of color, including members of our leadership team.”

They added that the terminations were for “just cause, and entirely appropriate in view of the conduct of the affected employees.” 

“Would calls to reinstate these employees be as loud if the rationale for their termination were made public? Should we as managers of this publicly funded organization delay appropriate action and disregard the well-being of our clients because we are engaged in a more than two month-long NLRB election process? Absolutely not,” they wrote in their statement.

But the two fired Queens Defenders described a different story of their firing.

Vasquez said she is the daughter of Dominican immigrants who grew up in public housing and graduated from an Ivy League school, before she began working for Queens Defenders at their Far Rockaway office. She said that her position at the nonprofit expanded to help survivors of domestic violence and helped create their high-priority food pantry.

Vasquez added that she was the only social worker who continued in-person work during the COVID-19 pandemic up until her termination.

“I have never been called into a disciplinary meeting or had any disciplinary action ever taken against me. Despite management knowing that I am reliable, hardworking and passionate about the work I am committed to, I was suddenly fired last Monday,” Vasquez said. “My parents did not immigrate to this country, and I did not work tirelessly my whole life, so people in power like Lori Zeno, can, on a whim, fire me and take away everything I’ve worked so hard to gain. As if we as employees as workers, do not matter.”

Avalone said she’s worked at Queens Defenders for well over a year. She explained she was instantly supportive of a union when her colleagues approached her last year, after she said Zeno fired an elderly employee “without severance and without just cause in the middle of a pandemic.”

Avalone said that as a single mother of a toddler, job security is important to her. She said that as public defenders, they face many challenges everyday, but that nothing could have prepared her for an in-person meeting she had with Queens Defenders’ management on Feb. 8.

“During this meeting, I was berated, intimidated and questioned about my union activity. And ultimately, I was fired,” Avalone said. “Now, I do not believe that this was a just cause firing — I wholeheartedly believe, as it was a retaliatory firing and it was meant to instill fear, not only in myself, but to my colleagues and everyone that was in support of our union.”

ALAA UAW Local 2325 and the former Queens Defenders are supported in their demands by Assembly members Jessica González-Rojas, Zohran Mamdani, Ron Kim, Nily Rozic, Stacey Pheffer Amato and Andrew Hevesi; State Senators Jessica Ramos and Michael Gianaris; and City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer, Daniel Dromm and Brad Lander.

On her first day in office, González-Rojas wrote a letter to Zeno, which several other Assembly members signed onto, urging the executive director to recognize the union.

“The public defenders [and] the social workers right now are literally performing life saving duties to protect the most vulnerable, and we need to protect you too,” González-Rojas said. “You’re fighting for the rights of others, and we need to ensure that you have the right to live under safe and healthy working conditions.”

González-Rojas added that they stand with ALAA UAW 2325’s demands that Queens Defenders “respect the overwhelming desire to form a union, refrain from any further retaliation, reinstate both Anna and Betsy, and when the union’s certified to bargain expeditiously and in good faith towards a collective bargaining agreement.”

Ramos, the State Senate’s Labor Chair, said she’s “disappointed by this egregious behavior.”

In reference to a previous meeting in which Zeno reportedly spoke for more than two hours about the risk of unionization, Ramos said she will continue to push forward her legislation to “ban captive audiences for good, so no worker is subjected to intimidation and union-busting tactics.”

Gianaris said that while elected officials who are allies to workers are used to fighting against anti-union companies “like the Amazon’s of the world,” they don’t expect it “from groups like public defenders who are supposed to be more enlightened and interested in the public good.”

Mamdani compared the situation to when he and other community members protested District Attorney Melinda Katz for not upholding her promise to never demand cash bail.

“Sadly, this isn’t surprising to have to come back here today and to call for the very same thing, which is to honor the values and to honor the words that we’ve been told that public defenders uphold so dearly,” Mamdani said.

Mamdani added that while Zeno and Queens Defenders management say there have been little firings to justify not needing a union, he said that shouldn’t be an excuse given the recent firings.

“Zeno is a walking argument for why unions are needed not simply at Queens Defenders but are needed everywhere, because dignity cannot be distributed at the discretion of management, it must be won by workers, and that is what unions do,” he said.

The Queens Defenders management admitted they have communicated to their staff why they believe a union isn’t needed, as they say it’s “unquestionably” in their legal right to do so, in their statement to QNS.

“For over 25 years we have provided high quality legal services to the residents of Queens. We have operated very effectively throughout our history without a union,” their statement read. “In addition, we firmly believe that our non-union status distinguishes us from the unionized public defender offices who contract with the City. As history has shown, unionized defender offices are subject to union-led strikes, which can seriously compromise the provision of legal services. Queens Defenders has offered the City an alternative to that risk, and we want to remain that alternative.”

Van Bramer said he received a letter from Zeno with a similar message.

“I would just say that union is always the best place for workers to be,” Van Bramer said. “I think all of us believe this, when workers organize and unionize, not only are they stronger and better for it, but the people that they work with and for […] are served better.”

Federal law states that at least 30 percent of employees must sign union authorization cards in order for an election to take place, or may choose to recognize the union voluntarily if more than 50 percent of employees sign union authorization cards. 

Queens Defenders has about 70 attorneys and social workers, 90 percent of whom signed union authorization cards in December, according to ALAA.

In the Queens Defenders’ management statement, they repeated claims that “many” staff members weren’t told that the union authorization cards would “demand recognition” but “simply thought they were signing a card to bring the issue to the table for discussion.”

In New York Focus’ report, a Queens Defender social worker said employees were “really clear” that their signature was a step towards having a union.

“The truth is that the fairest way to determine whether employees want union representation is through a secret ballot election,” Queens Defender’s management stated. “That is what will happen in this case, and it will be in accordance with NLRB law and procedures.”

The last date for employees to mail in their union vote was Feb. 16, a week after Vasquez and Avalone were fired and their votes disqualified, according to New York Focus. Results of the election will be announced in early March.