CAMBA Legal Employees Demand Right To Quality Life

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A local non-profit with deep tentacles into federal, state and city government funding for the work they do to improve the quality of life of local residents, is accused of providing sub par employee benefits to its staff.

More than 50 CAMBA (previously Church Avenue Merchants Block Association) Legal Services staff and employees rallied together last night in front of CAMBA’s main office at 1720 Church Avenue in Flatbush, to demand that the Brooklyn non-profit provide better employee benefits including full paid parental leave, affordable health care, and annual salary increases for support staff.

The protesting employees allege that the non-profit isn’t meeting industry compensation standards to provide a quality life to their employees and staff.  

CAMBA may be one of the largest non-profits in Brooklyn getting millions in government funding, but workers say they are being underpaid. Photo by Kelly Mena.

“We’ve been at the table negotiating for a fair contract but management is stalling quite frankly. They are not treating the staff–attorneys and support staff– with the respect they deserve and aren’t giving us what we need at the table,” said Deborah Wright, United Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, representing CLS workers.

The employees of CLS– secretaries, paralegals and support staff– first unionized last summer in a bid to improve their workplace conditions. CAMBA employs more than 2,000 workers, of which only 40 have unionized so far.

The group of unionized workers chanted “I believe that we can win!” and “Overworked and Overstressed, Working For CLS!” last night as they marched down Church Avenue garnering support for their cause.

The group is currently in the middle of negotiations with CAMBA management and their legal team for an improved contract. The two sides last met up to discuss terms of an agreement on Feb. 6 but since then negotiations have stalled, prompting the employees to take action.

Brooklyn resident and eight-year employee, Dafina Oruqi, CAMBA Project coordinator/Senior Paralegal, has personally dealt with the lack of basic employee benefits, having to use food stamps and her paid time off after her first pregnancy.

“With my first child I was still working at CAMBA, she’s now three. I had to get food stamps while on maternity leave because I couldn’t support my family including my husband. He was working at the time but it wasn’t enough. I also had no idea how much I was going to get paid while on leave, they sent a lump sum but I didn’t know if it would cover my rent. It was just so confusing and I had to use my vacation days,” said Oruqi.

The CAMBA workers took to the streets of Flatbush with their message. Photo by Kelly Mena.

Orqui is now nearly six months pregnant with her second child and fears she might end up in the same situation later this year.

Another employee Alisha Michel, a paralegal, worries about her future with the non-profit, if the conditions don’t change. CAMBA was Michel’s top choice while an undergrad for helping her local community.

“Well honestly meeting these demands would make a significant difference in my life. I started here as an undergrad, now I have a Bachelors from Brooklyn College. But I am still making the same amount, it didn’t make a difference. In the society we are living in today, things are growing, things are changing. We need to be compensated for the work that we do. It hurts me, it pulls me aback because I wasn’t even 21 when I started and it’s hard to plan for my future. I wanted to grow with CAMBA, I wanted to become a supervisor but now I don’t know anymore,” said Michel.

Currently CAMBA CEO Joanne Oplustil, makes $484,000 in yearly salary plus $186,000 in other estimated compensation. While a dozen other top executives make well over $200,000, that according to the non-profit’s 990 tax filings for 2016.

In addition, the organization for 2016 received about $125.5 million in contributions and grants, for a total revenue of $131 million in revenue, not including $42 million in total assets.

CAMBA officials responded they are working as hard as possible to meet the demands of their workers.

“We have been negotiating in good faith and we are working with all involved to reach an agreement on a contract, as we continue to provide important legal services to New Yorkers who need them,” said Sheila Stainback, CAMBA Director of Communications.

The two sides are set to meet up again Feb. 27.

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