‘Great Resignation’ hits Florida state attorneys, public defenders offices

Officials blame low pay, high caseloads

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orange-Osceola state attorney says the Great Resignation has hit her office. Monique Worrell says she is facing double-digit job vacancies from attorneys down to support staff.

“Nationwide, you’re hearing that we are in the midst of the Great Resignation,” Worrell said, who is state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit. “And we are not exempt from that.”

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Staffing numbers are getting critically low, according to Worrell.

“We’re in a staffing crisis,” Worrell said. “And it’s not unique to this office. It’s not unique to this industry.”

Fully staffed she should have 380 employees, but she says recently she is down about 50 positions, from assistant state attorneys who prosecute cases, to the staff that supports them.

“This turnover that we’re seeing now is based on too high caseloads, not enough money, and attorneys just being overwhelmed to a place where continuing to work here is not sustainable for their mental and physical health,” Worrell said.

In the past year, Worrell said she saw more resignations from the Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence units than any other area.

“And we started looking at what are the problems in those two units,” Worrell said. “And one of the problems that we saw was that, like many other areas, the attorneys were overwhelmed. The cases were too many.”

The unit that prosecutes domestic violence cases currently has 444 cases that are set for intake and 412 cases set for trial -- all divvied up between five attorneys, according to Worrell.

The Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence units recently had one manager each and five attorneys under each manager.

Worrell plans to combine the units by March 1 into one unit called Domestic and Sexual Abuse Crimes.

Statewide Epidemic

Katherine Fernandez Rundle is the state attorney for Miami-Dade County and has been for nearly 30 years.

She said in the last year, her office has lost 82 attorneys.

“It’s a statewide epidemic within our office and the public defender’s offices all around the state,” Rundle said. “That’s the size of a large law firm. It’s almost the size of obliterating one state attorney’s office.”

Like Worrell, Rundle recently went to Tallahassee to wave the red flag to lawmakers.

“If you look at our starting salary and compare it to other starting salaries in the country, we’re the second-lowest, in one of the greatest states,” Rundle said during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting.

She was followed by the public defender in Gainesville, Stacy Scott.

“We are in a crisis. It is critical,” Scott told lawmakers. “The system is about to implode if we cannot hire new lawyers and keep the lawyers that we have.”

The chief judge for Duvall County, Mark Mahon echoed the sentiments about low salaries.

“Our pay has slumped to 26th in the country out of all 50 states,” Mahon said.

“Sometimes, they’ll let us know that they left to go work in private practice where they can almost double the salary that we’re paying them at $50,000,” Worrell said. “We’re just not competitive with the private market.”

Public Defenders in the same position

Robert Wesley, the public defender for Orange and Osceola counties, says his office is in the same situation with 220 positions and 40 vacancies.

“Civil law firms, especially personal injury firms, desire our lawyers because of their trial skills and trial experience,” Wesley wrote in an email.

“We are unable to match the salaries private practice law firms offer -- sometimes more than 40%,” Wesley wrote.

Worrell said she is bringing retirees out of retirement to deal with the shortage.

She said if you are a former criminal law practitioner -- whether you are on the prosecutors side or the defense side -- and you are interested in work, please contact Worrell’s office.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning reporter Louis Bolden joined the News 6 team in September of 2001 and hasn't gotten a moment's rest since. Louis has been a General Assignment Reporter for News 6 and Weekend Morning Anchor. He joined the Special Projects/Investigative Unit in 2014.