By Jodi Feldman
The numbers are shocking. Within two weeks of Mayor Bowser declaring a public health emergency back in mid-March, nearly 28,000 District of Columbia workers had filed claims for unemployment insurance (UI) – more claims than had been filed in the entire previous fiscal year. And that was just the beginning. As of September 22, more than 145,000 jobless workers have filed UI claims in the District, a historic wave of unemployment.
In response, Legal Aid has mobilized significant internal and pro bono resources to meet the increased need for legal help. We especially prioritize serving lower-wage workers who face barriers in pursuing their claims such as lack of access to technology, limited or no English proficiency, and difficulty navigating complex and continuously changing regulatory schemes.
The law firm of Arnold & Porter, with a team of attorneys led by the firm’s Pro Bono Committee Chair Dan Cantor, Rebecca Gordon, and Roberta Horton, has been a critical partner in this effort. Early on in the pandemic, Arnold & Porter independently launched a nationwide pro bono initiative in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation to help restaurant and hospitality workers who had lost their jobs or had hours reduced as a result of COVID-19 related business closures. More than 100 Arnold & Porter attorneys have been involved with this effort nationwide.
Here in the District, where the restaurant and hospitality industry employed 80,000 workers pre-pandemic, Arnold & Porter reached out to Legal Aid offering to accept client referrals. Legal Aid, in turn, has provided substantive law training and ongoing mentoring and technical assistance to the firm’s attorneys.
A pro bono partnership in the area of unemployment insurance was an obvious fit for Legal Aid and Arnold & Porter. Back in 2011, with the support of Arnold & Porter through Equal Justice Works, Legal Aid hired Drake Hagner to represent low-wage workers who were wrongfully denied UI benefits. Today, Drake is a Supervising Attorney with Legal Aid’s Public Benefits Unit.
Over the past several months, attorneys in Arnold & Porter’s DC office have helped large numbers of low-wage DC workers secure UI benefits – including about 40 workers who were referred from Legal Aid. Assistance can range from providing information regarding eligibility for benefits to helping individuals navigate the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) bureaucracy to press for action on their pending claims to representing clients in appeals hearings. The firm also expanded its initiative to help clients who work in areas beyond the restaurant/hospitality field and is helping individuals access other critical safety-net benefits such as food stamps.
The pro bono partnership has been a huge success due in large part to the Arnold & Porter leadership team’s significant involvement. From day one, the leadership team took it upon themselves to really dig in and learn the nuts and bolts of the District’s UI system, as well as the additional federal benefits that were made available as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leading by example, Dan Cantor has handled several UI hearings himself. Dan and associate Monique Boyce recently represented a fast food restaurant worker referred from Legal Aid. The worker had been awarded UI benefits when his hours were reduced due to a pandemic-related loss in income, which made him eligible for UI in the District. Unfortunately, his employer appealed the award of benefits and claimed the reduction in hours was not pandemic related and asserted an alternative theory that could have denied his benefits. Dan and Monique deftly defended their client during the administrative hearing, where the employer eventually conceded on the record that the reduction in hours was related to the pandemic — thus ensuring that the client continues to receive the benefits for which he is eligible.
Dan explains, “We are honored to assist jobless workers during this historic unemployment crisis. The collaboration with and expert mentoring provided by Legal Aid has allowed us to train and involve a large team of Arnold & Porter lawyers in providing assistance to unemployed workers.”
We look forward to working with Arnold & Porter’s team to help many more DC workers secure their UI benefits over the coming months.
Jodi Feldman is the Managing Attorney for Legal Operations and oversees the Pro Bono Program at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, the oldest and largest general civil legal services program in the District of Columbia. Legal Aid was created in 1932 with the goal of making justice real – in individual and systemic ways – for persons living in poverty in the District of Columbia. For more information about Legal Aid, please visit their website, www.LegalAidDC.org and blog, www.MakingJusticeReal.org.