“Where aren’t people hurting right now?” That was the assessment from a Seattle-based social justice and anti-poverty group as outfall from the coronavirus outbreak continues to extend beyond the virus itself.
With the escalation from work-at-home recommendations to public gathering limits and now shelter-in-place mandates in 17 states including Washington, shuttered windows, devastated businesses, and out-of-work citizens became commonplace within a matter of days—and the short- and long-term economic consequences are purportedly only beginning to unfold.
In Washington during the week of March 8, unemployment insurance claims more than doubled over the previous week with more than 14,000 claims filed. Double-digit percentage increases were seen in across nearly every industry, according to the Employment Security Department, with the biggest impacts hitting accommodation and food services sector (up 597.3% over the previous week); educational services (up 569.5%); and arts, entertainment and recreation (up 255.8%). This prompted ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine to note that such numbers are on par with the worst days of the Great Recession, with an expectation that the peak has yet to come.
For legal service providers, the difficulty in addressing immediate legal needs and preparing for long-term aftershocks have been twofold: How to get legal services to people who need them most, and how to do it when in-person contact is prohibited. (Note, the following interviews were conducted before Washington’s shelter-in-place order went into effect.)
“We’re up to our elbows,” Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid Director James Bamberger told NWSidebar, “as are [Northwest Justice Project] and other legal aid providers.”
Among the providers contacted for this article, three themes quickly emerged:
- Volunteer lawyers and other legal professionals are and will continue to be in high demand in some places, but other providers are wary of being overwhelmed by a flood of volunteers amid the myriad other logistical problems they face;
- Many providers, which traditionally deliver in-person legal help, are grappling with how to handle client intakes and deliver services remotely;
- The need for legal aid will likely continue to grow as additional economic impacts unfold.
“Every organization is gearing up to address an explosion in the need for legal help with unemployment insurance claims, health insurance coverage, homeless services and support, and the impact of emergency court closures, continuances, and other actions that will have a disparate and disproportionate impact on low-income people of color; victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, stalking and other crimes; and people who are deaf and hard of hearing or have limited English proficiency,” Bamberger said.
In Eastern Washington, the Spokane County Bar Association (SCBA) Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP) has an immediate need for pro bono attorneys who can assist clients by phone.
“We were booked solid for our services through April,” said SCBA Executive Director Julie Griffith. “Our main focus is converting those clients from in-person to phone appointments.”
VLP’s clients will need advice on family law, consumer law, housing, wills, and guardianship issues. Interested volunteers are encouraged to contact JVC@SpokaneBar.org to be connected with a client.
At the Unemployment Law Project[CR1] —which represents people who have been denied unemployment benefits or whose award is being challenged—Executive Director John Tirpak said it’s still an open question of how the organization will pivot some of its services away from in.
The Project is preparing for a flood of unemployment benefit appeals and is in urgent need of both volunteer attorneys to represent claimants at phone hearings before the Office of Administrative Hearings and non-attorney volunteers to help with intake interviews. Pro bono volunteers can contact Anne Paxton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re sort of in the process of figuring out how to do that remotely,” Tirpak said.
Likewise, the King County Bar Association Housing Justice Project has a stable pool of existing volunteers and, at least for now, no system for onboarding new ones until in-person gatherings are once again allowed.
“When we are able once again to meet face to face with prospective volunteers we certainly encourage WSBA members to reach out,” said Program Operations Coordinator Arlen Olson. Interested members can apply to volunteer with KCBA pro bono programs using its online volunteer application.
With the rise in unemployment, evictions are likely to be the next wave generating a need for legal help. Things have been fairly quiet so far at the Tenant Law Center—part of the Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services—said Directing Attorney Mark Chattin, but he expects “a flood of cases” in the near future: “I think the next thing will be the housing issue and that probably will have a pretty dramatic and quick impact.”
Compounding that is a very definitive date after which Chattin expects the Tenant Law Center and similar housing organizations will feel the full brunt of a population in need of legal help. Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on residential evictions in Washington, but that proclamation is scheduled to sunset on April 17. Given the rapidly fluctuating situation, Chattin stressed that, at least for his organization, volunteer lawyers will need to have some experience with the specific area of law, given the sheer volume of expected cases and the need for rapid assistance.
And members of marginalized communities are simultaneously grappling with a loss of other services as social service organizations have been forced to significantly scale back. For example, more than 20 programs and services have been impacted at Solid Ground, an advocacy group working to end poverty and structural oppression. Among them are children’s programming such as tutoring and recreational programs that currently serve 175 households, and weekly drop-in tenant clinics.
“We’re really trying to figure out how to get people connected to resources,” said Solid Ground Communications Director Mike Buchman, noting that the organization’s usual system of client referrals to legal services has been impacted by the inability to meet people in person.
Grete Schultz, managing attorney for the Solid Ground Benefits Legal Assistance team, said the three staff attorneys “are currently able to maintain that legal practice … but the state has been making changes to the public benefits programs rapidly so this may change. I cannot speak to the additional services that those who utilize other programs at Solid Ground might need, although I’m sure they are numerous.”
For those interested in volunteering with the program, Schultz said to reach out directly at email@example.com or 206-694-6807.
Said Bamberger of the Office of Civil Legal Aid: “We do not yet even understand the gravity of the problems that low-income and members of marginalized communities will experience; but one thing we do know is that we will need volunteer attorneys in every corner of the state to step up, connect with their local volunteer attorney programs or (where none exist) legal aid programs.”