Private bar in Washington steps up during the pandemic

October 13, 2021

OCLA-sponsored attorney team generously answers the call to help claimants with unemployment benefit appeals

Throughout the pandemic, stories about the struggle that many jobless workers in Washington have had in securing unemployment benefits they temporarily needed for basic costs of living have been front-page news and exploded on social media.

Less well known is the fact that it often takes legal counsel to navigate the benefits bureaucracy and challenge benefit denials. And that can pose a major obstacle for people who find themselves without a steady income.

Fortunately, the private bar in Washington state has come forward decisively to help address these workers’ needs by signing on with a program, sponsored by the Office of Civil Legal Aid (OCLA), that funds them to offer their advocacy services to unemployed workers at significantly reduced rates.

In a normal year, judges with the Office of Administrative Hearings might hear some 25,000 appeals of unemployment benefit denials filed by Washington claimants. But 2020, of course, was anything but normal. Due to tripled numbers of benefit applications and denials, an enormous backlog of appeals built up in our state, with appellants forced to wait months for resolution.

The unmet need for representation of claimants without a steady income went skyward. At one point this spring, OAH was faced with finding judges to hear 70,000-plus appeals and needed to turn to the legislature for special funding to keep pace.

The state funded extra administrative law judges and OCLA had its own response at the ready: a panel of attorneys available to provide counsel to claimants at significantly reduced cost. With direction and funding by OCLA, the Unemployment Law Project helped recruit and train an “OCLA panel,” a contingent of more than 40 attorneys in Eastern and Western Washington who would be on call to represent claimants in their appeals.

Already in 2021, this dedicated group has taken several hundred appeals and is on track to have helped 1,000 claimants by the end of this year. Their clients may have been denied benefits because of quitting a job, or because they couldn’t work while their children’s school was closed. Or the state may have alleged that they wrongly received benefits and must pay them back—sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars—or for dozens of other reasons.

These claimants can include single mothers, 20-year-olds who have lost their first job, people working in offices, in warehouses, in hospitals, at construction sites. It’s likely that most of them had never been unemployed before the pandemic.

Claimants routinely say that having the support of an OCLA panel attorney has been invaluable, whether or not they win their appeals. “My attorney was not only professional and knowledgeable, but also personable and caring, one claimant said. “It’s difficult to express how much relief it gave me to have my attorney by my side during this process.”

Said another: “I am deeply appreciative of the services and advice you have offered to workers who are navigating challenging, stressful, and often intimidating circumstances. You are doing work that is very important; you have my thanks and respect.”

OCLA and ULP join claimants in thanking this exceptional group of Washington attorneys who have answered the call for help and eased the blow of unemployment during the pandemic for so many people in our state.


The Unemployment Law Project is a non-profit law firm based in Seattle and Spokane that assists unemployment claimants with appeals of benefit denials.

The Office of Civil Legal Aid‘s mission is to secure, invest, and oversee public funding for civil legal aid to low-income people in Washington State.

For further information, contact Anne Paxton, Staff Attorney & Policy Director, Unemployment Law Project,, 206-441-9178 ext. 114.

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