For the past eight months, it has been my privilege to serve as the Director of the Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project at Legal Aid. Named after its founder who passed away much too young at age 56, the Project has a unique mission at Legal Aid: to identify and obtain appellate relief on issues of systemic importance affecting the substantial community of persons in poverty in the District. The range of issues the Project handles is broad, as the 2011 appellate docket includes matters involving tenant rights, paternity and support, attorneys' fees, medical insurance in emergency room situations, and many others.
Surprisingly to me and probably to you too, my October appellate focus has been almost exclusively on unemployment insurance (or "UI") benefits for eligible workers between jobs. I have filed three briefs this month, am drafting a fourth, and argued yet another in the Court of Appeals earlier this week – all about unemployment insurance. This resurgence of litigation provides us a unique opportunity to emphasize that both the District of Columbia Council and the courts have been explicit that the unemployment compensation statute should be construed liberally whenever appropriate to minimize the economic burden of unemployment. And that is as it should be. Unemployment can happen to you, to me, to anyone. This humanitarian safety net of unemployment insurance lends a helping hand to tide over the temporary dislocation and delays in a job search in a depressed economy.
Moreover, the political consensus supporting unemployment insurance is nonpartisan and near-unanimous. This is particularly true in the current economic crisis in the District, where unemployment rates hover above 10% and in some wards above 30%. Given the weak economy and jobs market, unemployment insurance is perhaps more important than ever, and our obligation as a legal services organization representing persons living in or on the brink of poverty is to make sure that individuals entitled to this critical safety-net benefit are not denied access to it. For that reason, as this blog recently reported, Legal Aid is undertaking some new initiatives this fall to help initial claimants for such assistance.
While the unusual spike in the number of UI cases on Legal Aid's appellate docket this month is likely another consequence of the economic downturn, as even non-profit employers appeal agency awards of unemployment benefits to their former employees, the event does provide us occasion to highlight the difference that such benefits can mean for those who may find themselves out of a job and rely on unemployment insurance to make ends meet. The vast majority of these individuals typically go through the entire claims process unrepresented, even if their appeal reaches the highest court in the District. For a handful of claimants, however, that's not the case this month, as Legal Aid is assisting them through the Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project.