Public defender hard at work on furlough week

May 3, 2013: 11:18 AM ET
santa lopez furloughed federal worker
Santa Lopez, an inspector in the Federal Public Defender's Office in Washington D.C., is currently on a six-day furlough.
WASHINGTON (CNNMoney)

Santa Lopez is on furlough this week from the Washington D.C. Federal Public Defender's office.

That means the government is forcing Lopez to take six days off. Unpaid. And it's mandatory, because it's part of the $85 billion federal spending cuts that kicked in on March 1.

But Lopez, who has worked as a federal investigator for 19 years, is not slacking off -- taking calls from accused defendants in jail on cases she's handling. She is also using the week to watch her two young grandchildren.

"I'm basically not getting paid for two jobs," said Lopez, 52, with a laugh.

Public defenders represent people who cannot afford an attorney. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to provide free legal counsel to impoverished defendants in criminal cases.

Public defenders are taking one of the hardest blows from the federal cuts, even as other federal workers such as air traffic controllers and meat inspectors, have won a reprieve. The defenders' rivals -- federal prosecutors working for the Department of Justice -- have also been spared furloughs.

Related: 4 myths about the spending cuts

In Syracuse, N.Y., workers in the public defender's office are facing 32 furlough days. In Southern Ohio, the top federal public defender fired himself to spare other attorneys in his office.

In Washington, D.C., the entire staff of about 35 was forced to take off 6 days before May 3. They'll have to take another 9 days, and possibly as many as 27 days total, before the end of September.

The furloughs have prompted a few federal judges to delay criminal proceedings in Washington.

District of Columbia U.S. District Court Judges Paul L. Friedman and Reggie B. Walton warned that forced spending cuts "severely threatens the rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to those accused of crimes," they wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post last month. "This is a price we cannot afford to pay."

Overall, public defenders have had to cut about 10% of their budget, and furloughs are a big part of it. One judge estimated that, nationwide, 2,000 judiciary workers would be laid off or furloughed this year between March 1 and Sept. 30.

Federal furloughs mean flight delays

A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender for the District of Columbia, gave his employees the flexibility to schedule their furloughs to accommodate day care, family finances and other matters at home.

In preparation for her furlough, Lopez said she got her finances ready to ensure bills were paid, such as her $1,300 monthly mortgage and insurance for her car and house.

She's cut back on eating out and taking her grandchildren out for meals. She even cut back on driving them around to activities to save on gas.

"When you look at what comes out of my paycheck for health insurance and taxes, I'm basically going to have zero (take-home pay) for this two-week pay period," said Lopez, who declined to detail how much she made.

Related: For the unemployed, no reprieve on budget cuts

Because they work with people who are penniless, workers in public defender offices often have unforeseen costs. Lopez said her office mates regularly pool money from their own pockets to dry clean suits for the accused, so they'll look presentable in court. At the same time, criminal cases are complex, which means they work long hours into the night and often on weekends.

Lopez said her colleagues have sprung for childcare for children of the accused or bought clothes for their spouses. Last Thursday, on Lopez's last day of work before her furlough, she bought a client reading glasses, so he could read his case file in jail.

"We're never 9 to 5. We're 9 to whenever the case is over. We don't do this for the money. We do this because this is what we care about," Lopez said. "Really, what the government is asking us to do -- is to work for free."

On her first furlough day, last Friday, Lopez cleaned her house and visited a friend in the hospital. She volunteered to babysit her grandchildren, after her son and daughter-in-law were faced with a childcare emergency.

Federal workers aren't supposed to work during their furlough. But Lopez feels obliged to help her clients even on her unpaid days off. Often Lopez and her colleagues are the only ones helping some of the nation's poorest at a time when they need it the most.

"I'm not going to not answer my phone if a client calls," said Lopez, who uses her personal cell phone for work. "If we don't do it, who's going to do it?"

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