Washington Employment Security Redesign Project Launches January 1

By Anne Paxton, Director, Employment Security Redesign Project

Since its founding, ULP has advocated not only for individual clients, but for protecting and strengthening the employment security rights of the more than four million current and future workers now living in Washington State. Rocky economic conditions, recessions, budget battles, and anti-worker politics can undercut or chip away at those rights. In addition, just ahead lie nationwide structural changes in employment—because of globalization, robotics, and the gig economy—that will pose even greater challenges to employment security.

In 2017, ULP launches an exciting new project to develop legislative and policy proposals that will help reform employment security. The Washington Employment Security Redesign project, funded by a one-year  Bank of America settlement distributed through the Legal Foundation of Washington, has two primary components: outreach to Washington workers about availability of unemployment benefits, and development and promotion of a specific package of reforms to the current system that can be implemented through legislation or regulatory changes.

ULP’s experience shows that just a fraction of laid-off or otherwise jobless people who qualify for benefits pursue their rights. Only 27% of workers eligible for UI in Washington obtain it. Many are unaware of unemployment insurance. Others, sadly, burn through their savings before applying because they confuse UI with public assistance. Most are intimidated by employers’ ability to run them through hoops related to interpretations of misconduct, voluntary severance, part-time employment, and more.

muscadine-1004186_1920Seasonally employed farmworkers have particularly low access to information about the UI protections and benefits available, even though roughly half of them would be eligible for unemployment benefits when they lose their jobs.  In previous and ongoing campaigns, ULP has focused outreach efforts on immigrants and veterans; with the Employment Security Redesign Project we will be building on that experience to reach out to farmworkers. For 2017, the project’s outreach component is gearing up an awareness campaign by linking with legal services offices, community centers, social work agencies, unions, and churches in Yakima, Skagit County, Spokane, and Wenatchee.

For the second component of the project, we plan to begin development of legislation, and strategic planning for its introduction and passage, immediately, with the help of Pam Crone, a legislative consultant and attorney with Legal Voice and former ULP Executive Director. ULP’s experience confirms that there are several measures that would provide relief in the short term to communities affected by layoffs and employer policies.

What are some of the problems that this project will address? The main ones relate to poor access, limits on benefits, and outdated eligibility standards. For example, maneuvering through benefit applications is complicated, but the Employment Security Department is so understaffed that people tell ULP it is hopeless getting help over the phone. People with disabilities need more than just online FAQs to understand benefits. Benefit levels are too low and have lagged behind inflation; the number of weeks of paid benefits allowed is inadequate and needs re-evaluation as well.

Employees, particularly women, who must quit jobs because of child care issues or caring for a family member, are sharply limited in unemployment protections. Workers are often barred from establishing good cause for quitting even when they face unacceptable hazards in their jobs. Also needed: expanded training benefits and more flexible policies on overpayments.

ULP will be seeking continuing funding for this project from a variety of potential sources, and we expect that the first year of our outreach and reform program will serve as a demonstration of its value as a long-term contribution to constructive policy development to support increased economic security, both for those who are on the job market and those who, for whatever reason, are unemployed.

With one of the most bustling economies in the U.S. and a substantial high-technology industrial base, Washington has already made its mark nationally as a leader in the move to raise the minimum wage.  ULP believes that Washington can be in the vanguard of seeing that employee interests are protected amid new economic challenges and structural change. Through the Employment Security Redesign Project, in addition to essential education and outreach, we hope to make Washington employment policy a model for the nation to follow.

ULP Serves Vets and Military Families

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By Dan Hayward, Attorney, Ira Hayes Veterans Fellow, Spokane

I joined the practice of law to provide services for the powerless. I never want to go back to the grind of the cubicle life where my talents and passions were washed away with each passing day. This position at the Unemployment Law Project has rekindled the fire in my soul. I would be fortunate to be allowed to continue this fellowship or find a similar position elsewhere. It has been an honor and privilege to serve alongside attorneys who live for an opportunity to serve their community.

I am slowly learning the tactics and strategies of our practice. With each passing day, I grow more competent to serve the needs of our community. It is hard not to be impatient to learn the game. Losses can be so devastating when you know that your client will have no ability to pay their bills or feed their families. The need for services is great and our resources are limited. It takes diligence and patience to represent each claimant when we know that thousands will go unrepresented.

Alongside my efforts for our clients, I have spent several days outreaching to the veterans community. I have made many valuable contacts and started a cascading flow information that continues to expand. With a strong network of organizations and individuals, our services will be well known in the veterans communities. It’s not clear when we will see the results of our work, but I know we are making the contacts we need to and our services are being offered to unreached groups.

I attended the Spokane Veterans Task Force this last week. Many of my contacts suggested that this is the biggest event in town for veterans. There were at least 25 different organizations offering their services to veterans.  I handed out all my business cards I had and many organizations were eager to speak with me. The need for legal service in the veterans community is substantial. Not only were the veteran’s eager to hear about the Unemployment Law Project, many of the organizations were delighted to get my contact information. The organizations said that it’s hard to find free legal services for veterans. A few people congratulated me because of the type of work we do.

Over the last month, I had the privilege to work on an amicus memo for a veteran. Veterans issues can be complex and unique. I learned that there are some larger legal concerns for veterans and the unemployment system. Employees calculate their unemployment benefits based on the previous year’s wages.However, Washington State does not count weekends and summer training. Therefore, some military individuals don’t get credit for their service when they become unemployed.

I am currently continuing to better learn my job and continue to expand the search for rural veteran’s communities. Admittedly, I have run into a lot of dead ends. Small counties have very few resources and often refer to other counties. In these coming months, I will be spending more time reaching out to the rural counties and exchanging resource contacts.

The Ira Hayes Veterans Fellowship is named in honor of  the Native American World War II hero of Iwo Jima who returned to a life of poverty and neglect. The fellowship is funded by the Inland Northwest Community Foundation and donors to ULP.

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Building Community Connections

By Lillian Kaide,  SU Frances Perkins Fellow, Seattle

muscadine-1004185_1920It was deep into my pre-hearing conference with a client that the reality of the language barriers she faced emerged as a fully formed picture. She had signed documents alleging facts that she disputed because she was unable to read English. Her supervisor had a job termination meeting with her where she was asked if she understood the allegations against her; she replied ‘yes’ because she was embarrassed that she did not understand the words that her supervisor used. While my client had an interpreter to understand her administrative hearing, she was rightfully frustrated by her job separation and the unemployment insurance process. Neither proceeding had been inclusive or accommodating.

I find the most meaning in my work with the Unemployment Law Project in moments like these: fighting for a client whose legal needs must be met and who has already faced significant challenges. Truthfully, sometimes, rather than identifying ULP as a legal aid organization, I think of us as the storytellers of the untold stories of the vulnerable people in Washington.

My work as the second SU Frances Perkins Fellow is as diverse as the people ULP serves. In addition to representing clients in their administrative hearings and further appeals, I have been working on community outreach projects. The focus of my work is to connect ULP with Washington’s immigrant and refugee community members. Most recently, I have been reaching out to the different branches of the Seattle Public Library to include our informational brochures in their community rooms or by their computer stations. I am also working on expanding the translated versions of our informational brochures to include languages such as Korean, Amharic, and Arabic. My overarching goal with each project is to minimize the access and language barriers clients face when accessing ULP’s services.

Thus far, I have been able to represent a broad range of clients, including many immigrants. Most recently, I represented an Iranian woman who was fired from her job after being accused of child endangerment by her employer. In another case, I represented a Filipino woman who quit after suffering from food poisoning caused by food provided by her employer. Her case was particularly difficult because she received a new hearing after appealing to the Commissioner’s Review Office, and she did not understand why she was responsible for testifying in a new hearing. As her representative, I sympathized with her frustration. She had been fighting for her unemployment benefits for almost a year with limited understanding of the administrative process. As of today, her case has consisted of three hearings and one appeal to the Commissioner’s Review Office, and we are still waiting to hear back from the ALJ regarding her last hearing. No person should have to go through this process by themselves. Her case is a great example of the principle that every person should be entitled to access legal representation, that lawyers are not privileges for those who can afford to pay for them.

My time with ULP has been as rewarding as it has been challenging. I truly cannot express my gratitude for the opportunity to help create social change, especially in my first fulltime position after law school. I would like to extend a big thank you to everyone who made this fellowship available for a second year, particularly Jennifer Werdell, Diana Singleton, and the Access to Justice Institute for their continued support and vision.

The SU Frances Perkins Fellowship is named after the first woman to be Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. She had a lifelong dedication to workers rights after she witnessed the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. Many immigrant women lost their lives in that fire due to the unsafe working conditions. The fellowship is funded by the Seattle University School of Law Access to Justice Institute and donors to ULP.