Legal Aid Launches New Project to Represent Unemployed, Low-wage Workers
Unemployment Insurance
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Drake Hagner,  Equal Justice Works Fellow

Legal Aid is proud to launch its new DC Unemployment Insurance Justice Project, which seeks to expand access to unemployment insurance (UI) for low-income DC residents. With the support of Arnold & Porter through Equal Justice Works, Legal Aid will represent low-wage workers who are wrongfully denied UI benefits. Through individual and systemic advocacy, we will press for effective implementation of changes in the law to benefit low-wage workers. Finally, through outreach, we will ensure that those who most need benefits will have the help and knowledge they need to prevail in their claims.

We believe this new Project will fill a substantial gap in services for our client community. Recent data released by the Federal Government indicates that, as feared, high-unemployment rates are here to stay.  Low-income communities in the District of Columbia have been hit especially hard by the economic recession. In Ward 8, for instance, unemployment rates have reached Depression-era levels with nearly 30% of residents out of work. These numbers are even higher when we include adults who have given up looking for work, or have partially replaced their income with lower-paying part-time positions.

Not surprisingly, high rates of unemployment lead to more families living in poverty. Because few low-wage workers have savings or family members able to assist them during hard times, any loss of income can have a devastating effect. Many families rely on unemployment insurance in order to survive the transition between jobs and ensure access to food and shelter. UI provides up to six months of partial-income replacement and is financed by contributions from employers. 

Due to recent changes in the DC Unemployment Compensation Act, more low-wage workers are eligible for these crucial benefits. For example, workers who quit their jobs because of an ill child or family member are now eligible. The law also provides common-sense redress for workers who missed administrative deadlines through no fault of their own. As a result, many recently unemployed workers may now be eligible for benefits or be able to appeal their denials. However, these new changes also heighten the need for legal assistance to assist UI applicants navigate the law, prepare for hearings, and otherwise assist to enforce their rights. In DC, only 10% of parties in UI appeals are represented by an attorney.

Unemployment insurance is a crucial tool that helps families avoid economic devastation after a job loss. With the ongoing economic downturn and recent changes in DC law, now is the right time to launch this important project for low-wage workers.

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