Navigating a System Unprepared for Historic Unemployment

More than 150,000 people have filed for Unemployment Benefits in DC since March, overwhelming a system that struggles to handle even a typical year’s caseload. Among the problems with applying for unemployment at the beginning of the pandemic: you needed to use Internet Explorer on a desktop computer; you needed to fill the form out in English; and it was nearly impossible to contact the agency by phone. More than 400 recently-unemployed workers reached out to Legal Aid for help.  

Within a week of the public health emergency being declared, Legal Aid responded swiftly with a multi-pronged approach, leveraging our partnerships and resources to ensure that we could address the unemployment crisis. We hope that our efforts – some of which are described below – will serve as a model for legal services providers in other jurisdictions:

  • Virtually overnight, expanded our internal unemployment team from one attorney to 15 staff members
  • Forged partnerships with law firms and law schools
  • Coordinated a new coalition of workers’ rights advocates in the District
  • Significantly expanded our community outreach efforts, partnering with the AFL-CIO and community organizations to educate fellow attorneys and the public on the expansion of UI programs during the pandemic
  • Advocated before the DC Council and the Department of Employment Services to support needed emergency legislation and enact improvements to the unemployment system
Drake Hagner, a Supervising Attorney in the Public Benefits Law Unit, published a case study about Legal Aid’s Unemployment Insurance practice during the pandemic to help serve as a model for other providers.

We focused our efforts on serving lower-wage workers who faced barriers in pursuing their claims such as lack of access to technology, having limited or no English proficiency, and having difficulty navigating complex and continuously changing regulatory schemes.

Through this combination of direct legal assistance and advocacy, we have helped thousands of DC residents struggling financially get the unemployment benefits they deserve and paid for through payroll taxes.

“I am going to be adamant about modernizing our UI system and making sure we have a system that is accessible and modern and can be used by our workers in the century they live in, not the last century”

During a hearing on the administration of unemployment benefits in which Legal Aid and other services providers testified.

Cynthia Spencer

In March, Cynthia Spencer lost her job due to the pandemic. She applied for Unemployment Benefits with the Department of Employment Services (DOES) but was denied. When she reached out to DOES to find out why, she hit a wall.

“I held on the phone for hours, wanting to know why I was denied. I had to appeal the decision within 15 days, but I did not know how to file an appeal. I do not have access to a computer, and the library in my area was closed.”


Fortunately, Ms. Spencer already had a relationship with Legal Aid. Since 2012 we have represented Ms. Spencer in multiple cases involving housing, Social Security disability insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare Part D, and she is now a key part of Legal Aid’s Community Advisory Council, so she knew exactly where to turn. Andrew Patterson, a Senior Staff Attorney in our Public Benefits Unit, jumped in to help Ms. Spencer. After reviewing her case, he told Ms. Spencer that she, in fact, did not qualify for regular Unemployment Benefits, but asked if she had applied for a new COVID-19 related unemployment program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program (PUA), which she did not even know existed.

Her denial letter from DOES never mentioned PUA as an option. With Legal Aid’s help, she applied for PUA and was approved (with retroactive benefits) in May. Ms. Spencer had help, but thousands of other applicants did not.

“If it wasn’t for Legal Aid Society, I don’t know where I would be.”


Amplifying the Voices of our Client Community

In September, Ms. Spencer, along with Legal Aid and five other clients, testified before the DC Council about the performance of DOES during which they provided powerful testimony and identified extensive issues with the agency’s processing of unemployment claims.

These issues included delays, technological difficulties, unclear information and more. Legal Aid also testified and proposed recommendations to address these issues such as translating documents and ensuring that individuals have the ability to submit their applications by mobile phone.

Adela Perez-Guzman, another Legal Aid client who testified at the hearing, said that she too had to wait several weeks to hear back from DOES, but more importantly, she had trouble accessing forms and customer service in her language (Spanish), which DOES is supposed to provide as required by District and federal laws.

Legal Aid client Adela Perez-Guzman testified at the DC Council about the challenges she faced in accessing unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

“It caused a lot of stress while I was waiting to hear back and to receive benefits. In the end, it worked out. But the truth is that for some time my husband and I did not know how we were going to pay for food or rent for us and our family.”


Throughout the year, Legal Aid worked closely with our clients and our Community Advisory Council on efforts like this to highlight and address systemic issues that affect thousands of DC residents.