Nevertheless, She Persisted

Fern Steiner brings her labor law tenacity to two local boards

Published in 2018 San Diego Super Lawyers — April 2018

After digesting the works of legal masterminds F. Lee Bailey and Louis Nizer, Fern Steiner decided to follow in their footsteps. She was 8. 

That resolve wavered only once in her life—when she went to work as a hospital lab technician after college. But the job wound up not only reaffirming her original ambition but also pointing her toward a specific practice area. 

“It was where I had my first labor dispute,” she explains. “They were assigning the evening and night shifts as a single shift because the hospital at one time wasn’t that busy, so people usually got to sleep on the night shift. But the hospital had become extremely busy by the time I was working there, so nobody was sleeping.

“I went and told my supervisor, ‘We’re owed overtime for these shifts in the lab and X-ray,’ and she sent me to the vice president. He told me I was just a cute little thing and quite amusing. And I said, ‘No, no, actually you really do owe us all a lot of money.’”

They thought she would go away. She didn’t. Ultimately, the hospital began paying the overtime shifts, and Steiner turned her focus to back pay.

“It was a Catholic hospital, so the hierarchy went out and talked to the employees,” she says. “[They] said, ‘God really wants to make this right but doesn’t like Fern and doesn’t think you should take the money.’” 

Steiner has now represented employees and unions for four decades. “It’s very fast paced,” she says. “For the most part, you’re fixing wrongs that employees are suffering: They’re not being paid the right pay, not being scheduled properly, losing out on their sick leave and being fired.” 

She doesn’t stop there. Steiner is devoted to two arenas unrelated to her legal career: water management and youth homelessness.

“I always was brought up with the idea that you have to do something to give back to the community,” she says. “When we would go out trick-or-treating, we collected for UNICEF, we didn’t collect candy.”

The water management service came about by chance: Steiner was looking for a local board to serve on, and a spot became available on the San Diego County Water Authority. Mayor Dick Murphy first appointed her in 2003. She’s still there.

Despite having, she says, “zero background in water,” the diplomatic skills necessary for labor law carried over well. “You can’t have this kind of scorched-earth thing you have with litigation,” she says. “These people have to work together tomorrow. … You can do your job, and you can work hard to win, but you do it with a civility and do it with a recognition that you can’t have relationships [in which] nobody talks to each other or hates each other or tries to stab each other in the back.”

She did discover that progress at water agencies can be more trickle than deluge. “These people talk about stuff like it happened yesterday, and you find out it was 20 years ago,” she says. “They just sit there stewing over these issues.”

Not Steiner. “They’re going to talk to me, because I’m going to make them talk to me,” she says. “And we do try to work out things.”

Surely, though, sitting in negotiations on the management side has to be interesting for an employee-focused lawyer, right? 

“No, it’s scary,” she says. “I’m listening to people [in management] and why they think things should be proposed, and I’m like, ‘Wow. It’s worse than I thought.’”

It’s not all meetings. Twice a year, Steiner gets to play tour guide—showing participants the challenges of providing safe water. One tour, along the Colorado River, includes stops at Parker or Hoover Dam, the intakes in Copper Basin, and a pump plant, where guests learn how water is brought up and over the mountains. The other, at the Bay Delta state water project near Sacramento, includes visits to Oroville Dam, a fishery, levees and a pump plant. Both are two-day trips, including an overnight stay.

“You end up with about 20 to 40 people on one of these tours,” she says. “I’ve had people from all walks of life on these, and they all come away with an absolute better understanding of how fragile the water system is, how much work it takes to get water, and they’ll start to tell me about their conservation projects.”

She has one of her own—a system in her yard to collect rainwater. “Everybody’s got to be mindful,” she says, “that they’ve got to be good stewards.”

Steiner has also served for 15 years on the board of San Diego Youth Services, which has a program that takes homeless youth off the street, places them in housing complexes and teaches them basic life skills.

Lawyers do a lot for their communities, she says, even if the public doesn’t always notice.

“I know when I do my tours,” she says, “a lot of people have looked at my biography that’s in the handout. They’re sitting there going, ‘Huh? Why is she up here?’ I explain how I got into water [management], and that makes everybody else start going, ‘Well, maybe I should be doing something.’”

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