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Career Prosecutors at the Justice Dept. Are Asking for Better Pay and More Telework

In a pair of letters, a professional association representing the prosecutors said the department should improve pay and working conditions to keep pace with legal employers in the private sector.

A professional association representing career prosecutors urged the Justice Department last week to improve assistant U.S. attorneys’ pay and expand the use of telework following the COVID-19 pandemic, citing inflation and a need to keep pace with law firms in the private sector.

Each year, assistant U.S. attorneys receive the same across-the-board increase to basic pay as other federal employees, but they are also eligible for a pay increase through the Justice Department’s Annual Pay Review process, which establishes a pool of money to grant raises, subject to appropriations. In 2021, that additional pool was equal to 2.5% of the salaries of career prosecutors who had not yet hit their salary cap.

In a letter to Robert Wilkerson, director of the Justice Department’s Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys President (D.C.) Steven Wasserman said that even with the 2.2% across-the-board pay increase—not counting the 0.5% average increase in locality pay—that went into effect in January, federal employees effectively saw a 4.8% pay cut due to inflation. Wasserman noted that the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index was measured at 7% last December.

“Simultaneously, wages are increasing for all workers,” he wrote. “The largest law firms now pay their entry-level lawyers over $200,000 per year. These lawyers are often AUSAs’ adversaries in high-stakes investigations and cases. While we understand that AUSA salaries will never approach the pay received by top private-sector lawyers, it is important that U.S. Attorneys’ offices remain able to attract and retain strong legal talent.”

Wasserman urged the department to issue an additional 4.8% minimum raise through the annual pay review process, which would bring career prosecutors’ 2022 pay raise to 7%, equal to the latest annual change in CPI.

“In order to limit the effect of inflation on AUSAs and in order to retain excellent lawyers, NAAUSA requests a significant increase in the [Annual Pay Review] pool for 2022,” he wrote. “The pool should increase to a minimum of 4.8% of non-capped onboard AUSA salaries for the 2022 [Annual Pay Review] process. Without substantial pay increases, we fear that many AUSAs may be forced to resign in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living for their families this year.”

In a separate letter to Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, Wasserman encouraged the department to establish a more generous and, more importantly, uniform telework policy for career prosecutors as officials contemplate a return to traditional worksites. Again, he noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition to telework and hybrid work environments across the legal industry.

“Based on feedback from our AUSA members collected this fall, the patchwork of telework flexibility policies results in dramatically different and sometimes arbitrary access to work-life benefits based on individual U.S. attorney preferences,” he wrote. “While some U.S. Attorney offices allow significant telework flexibility, some offer none or nearly none. NAAUSA members have raised health and wellbeing concerns at [offices] that revoked telework flexibility as soon as possible without ensuring adequate safety measures were in place to protect employee health. Given the high contagion level of many COVID-19 variants, such as the delta and omicron variants, this is increasingly concerning.”

Wasserman urged the department to consider a “uniform, baseline” telework policy covering all U.S. Attorney offices of at least two days per week when in-person work is required.

“As Big Law offices acknowledge, the next generation of attorneys care deeply about workplace flexibility and partial telework policies serve as a valuable recruitment tool in the hottest talent market the legal industry has seen in decades,” he wrote. “[U.S. Attorney offices] are struggling to attract and retain top talent, instead often serving as a training ground for more lucrative private sector careers. Enhancing telework flexibility across [offices] is a simple yet effective way to improve the recruitment and retention of qualified personnel from the incoming generation, as well as retaining experienced prosecutors who can handle increasingly complex cases.”

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