Written by Drake Hagner

Sep 30


Unemployment Benefit Increase Goes Into Effect October 1st

DC’s unemployed workers have waited more than eleven years for an increase in their maximum weekly benefit amounts. Finally, on October 1, 2016, DC will increase benefits for most unemployment claimants.

Over the past year, Legal Aid worked alongside a coalition of unemployed workers, union representatives, and advocates to push for higher unemployment benefits. DC had one of the lowest benefit amounts in the country, despite having one of the highest costs of living. DC also had harsh provisions in the law that disproportionately affected low wage workers. Read more →

May 03


Unemployed Workers Demand Comprehensive Unemployment Benefit Reform

After months of advocacy with the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, a coalition of unemployed workers, union representatives, and advocates returned to the D.C. Council last week to demand quick passage of Bill 21-370, the Unemployed Benefits Modernization Amendment Act of 2015.

As background, unemployment benefits provide a temporary, partial wage replacement to workers who lose their job through no fault of their own. However, since DC’s unemployment benefit levels have not been updated in more than a decade, this safety net is not protecting workers as it should. Currently, DC’s maximum weekly benefit amount of $359 per week is one of the lowest in the nation — 38 other states offer higher benefits. Read more →

Mar 09


Unemployed Workers Urge DC Council to Raise Unemployment Benefits

On March 7, 2016, Legal Aid joined unemployed workers and other advocates to ask that the DC Council raise unemployment benefits and adopt other common sense reforms to benefit workers in the District of Columbia. The witnesses testified at the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ Performance and Oversight Hearing for the Department of Employment Services, which administers DC’s unemployment benefit program.

Tonya LoveUnemployment benefits provide a partial wage replacement to workers who lose their job through no fault of their own. As Tonya Love, of the Metro Washington Council (AFL-CIO), explained, “I have interviewed thousands of unemployed workers and for almost all of them, a job loss can be catastrophic.” Unemployment benefits help prevent a free fall into poverty for the individual worker. But these emergency funds also benefit the local economy by allowing workers to continue paying bills and buying needed goods, like groceries, after a job loss. Read more →

Sep 23


DC Council To Consider Important Unemployment Insurance Reforms

“We can afford to modernize District benefits, and we should do so,” DC Councilmember Elissa Silverman stated yesterday as she introduced a bill to bring needed updates to DC’s unemployment benefit system.

DC’s unemployment benefit amounts have fallen behind other states after a decade without any increases. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, 38 states have higher maximum weekly benefits than DC, and DC’s current maximum unemployment benefit of $359 per week is lower than both Virginia and Maryland, despite DC’s high cost of living. Read more →

Jun 30


Study: 75% of “Conservatives” Think the Poor “Have It Easy”

As a public benefits attorney, I read with interest a post about the new Pew Research Center survey that found that more than three-quarters of self-identified conservatives – and almost half of all those surveyed – believe the poor “have it easy” because they can “get public benefits without doing anything.”

Every day, I work with clients who are wrongfully denied public benefits. Who gets this assistance? A woman with disabilities whose Social Security benefits keep her from becoming homeless; a 10-year-old child whose Medicaid pays for his leukemia treatments; a working parent whose food stamps supplement her low-paying job to help feed her children; a worker who gets unemployment when he loses his job due to company lay-offs. Read more →

May 22


NYC Lawsuit Tackles Bias in Disability Appeals

Mezey.RAGLEPHOTO_0154_11780Drake HagnerA small group of individuals with disabilities in Queens, New York fought back against judicial bias in the Social Security disability appeals process – and won. A recent article, published by the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, tells their story and highlights the important systemic reforms they achieved. Read more →

Jan 15


Legal Aid Client Featured in Senator Tom Harkin Floor Speech

Yesterday, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) spoke out against proposed cuts to Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits for people who also qualify for unemployment compensation. The cuts are part of a proposed amendment to a bill that would otherwise extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which expired just three days after Christmas 2013 and left hundreds of thousands of long-unemployed individuals without benefits. This amendment was offered as a way of saving money by slashing SSDI dollar-for-dollar when a person with disabilities also qualifies for unemployment benefits.

In his remarks, Senator Harkin also told Henry’s story.
Read more →

Apr 25


Through Collaboration with Law Firms, Pro Bono Attorneys Recoup $50,000 in Unemployment Benefits for Low-Wage Workers over Past Six Months

Drake Hagner, Equal Justice Works Fellow

Drake Hagner, Equal Justice Works Fellow


Six months ago, Legal Aid joined forces with Arnold & Porter and McKenna Long & Aldridge to serve even more low-wage workers who have been wrongfully denied unemployment benefits.   Having been trained and mentored by Legal Aid attorneys, the pro bono attorneys involved in this project have zealously represented newly unemployed workers at their unemployment hearings, which are scheduled on an expedited calendar at the District’s Office of Administrative Hearings.

Since 2011, Arnold & Porter has provided generous support to Legal Aid through Equal Justice Works, allowing us to expand our public benefits practice to include unemployment insurance cases. Now, 18 months into the project, Legal Aid has represented more than 25 low-wage workers and has counseled over 100 others.

Read more →

Jun 05


Six Months In, Legal Aid’s Unemployment Project Has Returned $30,000 in Benefits to Low-Wage Workers

Drake Hagner, Equal Justice Works Fellow

Starting June 9, hundreds of District residents will lose their extended unemployment benefits.  On that date, federal funds providing supplemental financial support to those having exhausted their regular unemployment benefits will dry up.

For most everyone, losing a job is a stressful event. But job losses can be devastating for low-wage workers who survive paycheck to paycheck.  Many workers are two weeks away from not being able to afford medications and bus fare.  Families are only one month away from not being able to pay their rent or utilities and facing an eviction notice.

Unemployment benefits provide a crucial safety net for poor families in the District of Columbia.  Families rely on these benefits to pay for necessities like food and shelter. While the overall unemployment rate in the District is slowly declining, unemployment rates in our city’s low-income communities remain very high.  In Ward 8, unemployment is still over 20% — more than twice the overall unemployment rate for the rest of the city.

Since November of 2011, Legal Aid has helped eligible low-wage workers obtain unemployment benefits.  In this new project, supported by Arnold & Porter LLP through Equal Justice Works, Legal Aid counsels low-wage workers and provides representation at hearings before Administrative Law Judges.  So far, we have recouped nearly $30,000 in unemployment benefits for low-wage workers.

One recent client was a veteran and a cancer survivor. He was let go from his job after he took time off to recover from a recent cancer diagnosis and side effects from treatment. He came to Legal Aid after he applied for unemployment and was denied.  We represented him at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.  After the Judge heard testimony from our client and his former employer, she awarded benefits because he lost his job through no fault of his own.  Now that he is recovered from treatment, he can look for work and collect unemployment.

It is terrible to lose a job, but even worse to be denied crucial benefits to which you are entitled.  Through our new unemployment insurance project, Legal Aid is helping workers access the crucial safety net benefits that help keep families afloat after a job loss.

Sep 29


Legal Aid Launches New Project to Represent Unemployed, Low-wage Workers


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.