Pro bono of the year award for unemployment

Update (6 July 2021): TMJ4 has this story about the award.

The Wisconsin state bar has announced its winners for pro bono attorney of the year award, and I am a co-winner with Rebecca Salawdeh in light of our separate work responding to the unemployment crisis in this state.

This entire website describes my efforts on behalf of the unemployed. So, I do not need to say much more about what I have been doing.

But, we all should hear about what Rebecca has been doing. She has been volunteering every Wednesday at Legal Action’s Milwaukee clinic to answer questions claimants are having about their unemployment claims. She has also taken on numerous cases herself and has appealed a few to the Labor and Industry Review Commission.

The need for just explaining the claim-filing process is overwhelming, Rebecca has found. Claimants cannot figure out what is going on with their claims — why a claim is being investigated or on hold or being denied. They cannot get answers from the portal or from staff answering claimants’ phone calls, Rebecca has observed. And so, just providing some perspective and explanation to claimants has been a godsend to many, Rebecca has witnessed, even for those who do not have a viable claim for unemployment benefits. For too many, finally getting an explanation about what has been going on is all that they wanted or needed.

Rebecca has also taken on several cases herself. Most of those hearings have gone well. The few that have not are being appealed to get the law applied correctly.

What Rebecca has seen in these cases is the toll that all of the delays and complications in the claim-filing process have created for claimants. One woman, on finally receiving the appeal tribunal decision finding her eligible and about to receive more than $10,000 in unemployment benefits, broke down and wept uncontrollably. Only at that point could all of the waiting and tension finally be released, and it was too much for her to contain.

I wholeheartedly agree with everything Rebecca has seen. A video of my acceptance speech has yet to be made available. But, here is the text of that speech.

I want to thank the state bar, all of the people who nominated me for this award, and my family for tolerating my crazy work hours this past year.

This award is because of the many unemployed folks I have been helping, including many, many disabled workers who are denied regular unemployment benefits.

When the pandemic hit, a host of new unemployment programs were started up, including a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA, intended for workers for whom regular unemployment benefits were not available.

Perversely, Wisconsin initially held that these PUA benefits were NOT available to disabled workers because of the eligibility ban for regular benefits – the very reason PUA benefits were created in the first place.

Luckily, leadership at the Department of Workforce Development listened to reason and reversed course from what staffers were saying. By late July 2020, PUA benefits were finally available to disabled workers.

But, the struggles for disabled workers to receive their PUA benefits did not end. New obstacles have appeared through new tests and changes in how the Department administers the claim-filing process. For instance, despite state unemployment law holding that disabled workers are able and available for work that is less than 32 hours a week, as long as they work to what their disabilities allow, the Department and administrative law judges are holding that disabled workers are automatically disqualified if they ever work less than 32 hours in a week.

So, disabled workers continue to struggle. They have lost jobs and have waited and waited and waited for unemployment benefits. Far too many are still waiting on benefits now in May 2021 after having lost work in March or April of 2020.

Even for those that have received their PUA benefits, far too many have had to avoid eligibility traps during the claim-filing process or at their hearings or just to find ways to cope with the waiting. Numerous cases concerned simple questions about these disabled workers losing their jobs when their employers closed because of the pandemic. Their claims were denied despite their obvious eligibility for PUA benefits. And so, they waited months for hearings to state the obvious: they lost work when their employers closed because of the pandemic.

That waiting was torture for more than a few. Some have sold their furniture. Food banks and rental assistance are life-saving. Some having fallen into the trap offered by payday lenders. Wisconsin invented unemployment benefits so as to provide immediate and needed financial assistance at times of massive job loss. It has failed.

Representation at these unemployment hearings has been crucial to turning the situation of these disabled workers around. Cases are being won and payments have gone out. The secretary’s office at the Department has been especially helpful in speeding up the scheduling of emergency matters so as to prevent evictions, or worse. Mothers and their children have celebrated the December holidays in their own home. Family pets have not been abandoned. Cars have finally been fixed.

Still, the problems with the unemployment system continue and, in some ways, are getting worse. If these trends are not turned around, I may well be up for this award next year. So, I urge all of you to get involved in this unemployment crisis and give me some competition. There is plenty of work to do.

Thank you.

2 thoughts on “Pro bono of the year award for unemployment

  1. First, congratulations to you and Rebecca. When I read this, it sounds like the department actively conspired to find ways to deny people benefits, which was not the case. The department is fully aware that benefits paid out to claimants help keep the economy as a whole afloat and there is absolutely no direction advising adjudicators to try to deny benefits or search for/find fraud.

    Regarding those who are disabled, our prior administration determined that those receiving SSDI were not eligible because if they received SSDI they were typically completely unable to work at all, which is not what UI is for. UI isn’t currently a disability insurance and although I feel that law was unnecessary/overkill, it is what that administration decided. However, given that there ARE claimants who can successfully work while collecting SSDI, that was thankfully changed. But it wasn’t as easy as you seem to think it should have been as it was law had to be changed. And with any claimants who had physical or psychological restrictions, could perform some work, but were denied because they couldn’t work 32 hours—there is either more to the story OR the adjudicator for that claimant made a mistake and that decision should be appealed. If the claimant cannot work at all, they would not be eligible for UI. That is law, as again, UI is currently not a disability insurance.

    I appreciate what you do, but UI is NOT the enemy. Adjudicators are not the enemy. They are hard workers doing the best they can when the workload skyrocketed. Adjudicators are almost always fair and unbiased, neither pro employee nor pro employer (although *both sides* will argue that they are biased for the other side) and they work hard to get the facts and make an accurate decision based on law and policy. They don’t always get it right and given the horrendous workload this pandemic brought, scores of new hires with quick training, and all of the personal stress they may have been going through personally, they do the best they can. And if either party felt the decision was wrong, this is what the appeal process is for.

    I do agree that some laws and policies should be questioned and challenged. The waiting week, to start. Substantial fault for another. Get rid of special considerations for temp help agencies. Fraud penalties are disproportionate to the ‘crime’ and should be more reasonable. Waiving the work search for longer than 8/12 weeks when the claimant is absolutely returning to work for that employer. But these issues are forced by legislation, not the department’s wishes. You know as well as anyone that the last administration was very heavy handed and didn’t consider what the UI advisory council would have recommended.

    Keep up the advocacy—it is important. But please make sure you are getting the full story and not sharing only part of the facts.

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