Legal Aid's Response to the COVID-19 Crisis
Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in March, Legal Aid has worked to respond to the needs of individual clients and advocate for policy changes to mitigate the impact of the crisis on our client community, all while prioritizing the safety and health of our clients, staff and volunteers.
Impact of COVID-19 on Legal Aid’s Client Community
Legal Aid’s client community has been immensely impacted by COVID-19 in almost every area of their lives. The disease has been disproportionately fatal to Black residents, who account for about three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths in DC. Workers have filed more than 100,000 unemployment insurance claims since mid-March. Food insecurity is up, tenants are struggling to pay rent, and many low-income DC residents have yet to receive their full stimulus payments or other benefits. As Courts re-open remotely, many in the District will face technological barriers to justice, in addition to the enormous inequities they were facing even before the crisis began.
Winning Protections for Tenants, Homeowners, and Consumers
From the beginning of the crisis, Legal Aid has been working with the DC Council, Courts, and government agencies to advocate for special protections for low-income residents. The Council passed four pieces of emergency legislation, while the Court stayed all non-emergency hearings, including in the high-volume courts where thousands of DC residents face eviction, unfair debt collection, and more. Legislative protections advocated by Legal Aid and passed by the DC Council include:
- Moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the public health emergency and for 60 days after
- Freeze on rent increases, prohibition of late fees for tenants, and preventing landlords from reporting negative information to credit agencies
- Requiring landlords to enter into rent payment plans with tenants who are experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic
- Preventing debt collectors from initiating new debt collection actions or starting wage garnishment
These protections will help mitigate the worst-case short-term scenarios from the crisis, including mass evictions and homelessness.
Stopping the Trump Administration from Taking Food Stamps from Thousands During a Pandemic
Earlier this year, Legal Aid sued the Trump Administration to block a new rule that was scheduled to cut off SNAP benefits (food stamps) for nearly 700,000 Americans, including more than 13,000 DC residents. Just as the pandemic began, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an opinion and order temporarily preventing the Trump Administration from implementing the new rule. The New York Times and The Hill covered the story.
“Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential,” Judge Beryl Howell wrote in her ruling.
The rule would prevent so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or adults without disabilities who live without children or other dependents, from receiving SNAP benefits for 33 of every 36 months unless they meet certain work requirements. Our complaint and motion for preliminary injunction highlighted the stories of two clients who have experienced challenges common across the District that negatively impact their ability to find and keep a job, including health issues, transportation issues, difficulties that arise from having a criminal history, and racial bias.
Navigating the Unemployment Benefits System
The DC unemployment benefits system has been slow to respond to the unprecedented number of unemployment insurance (UI) claimants, with technological and customer service flaws preventing a large number of earners, often the most vulnerable, from accessing these critical benefits. A test run by the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic at George Washington University found an 80% failure rate for calls to the Department of Employment Services (DOES) hotline. Our clients have run into a range of problems, including:
- Unable to apply online because they don’t have a laptop (the site can’t be accessed on a mobile device)
- Unexplained denials for earners with clear eligibility
- Applications only available in English and Spanish, and the special pandemic program is only in English
At a May DC Council hearing where Legal Aid testified, Council Member Elissa Silverman criticized the system’s problems, saying “I am going to be adamant about modernizing our UI system and making sure that we have a system that is accessible and modern and be used by our workers in the century they live in, not the last century.”
Legal Aid has been working with hundreds of earners who have struggled to access their benefits, including submitting batch requests for approval directly to DOES, challenging denials, and providing legal advice. One of our clients, Freddy Wiggins, was featured in a New York Times story. He captured what many are feeling, especially regarding whether he’ll be able to get his job back after the crisis: “It’s one of the scary things about this whole situation. When it’s over, you still don’t know if things will fall into place.”
Guiding Tenants Through the Crisis & Securing Emergency Housing Repairs
Early in the crisis, Legal Aid set up a special housing hotline so tenants could call with questions about their rights and how to deal with their landlords. Even in a temporary world where they cannot be evicted, many tenants are facing difficult choices about how to pay for food, medicine, and rent.
Legal Aid is also helping individual clients with unsafe housing conditions that have become even more problematic now under the stay-at-home orders. Since the summer of 2019, Sarah Jefferson’s (name changed) toilet, sink, shower, fridge, and stove had been inoperable. Her landlord wouldn’t make repairs, and she resigned herself to visiting her grandmother’s senior living facility to bathe, use the bathroom, and cook. When COVID-19 prevented her from visiting her grandmother, Ms. Jefferson had nowhere to go to meet her basic needs.
Legal Aid attempted to negotiate with the landlord to make repairs, but the landlord insisted that even emergency repairs were impossible during COVID-19. We helped Ms. Jefferson file a housing conditions case and a motion demanding immediate repairs. Following a telephonic hearing, the judge ordered the landlord to repair the plumbing and repair or replace the broken appliances. The repairs were made, and Ms. Jefferson can finally live safely and meet her basic needs in her own home.
Protecting Custody Rights and Family Safety and Stability
School closures and stay-at-home orders have caused major changes to family life, and parents with shared custody and visitation are in uncharted territory. At the same time, DC Superior Court has suspended many of its Family Court operations, leaving uncertainty about the legal recourse available to families.
To help parents and caregivers during this time, Legal Aid is working with partners in the Family Law Assistance Network (FLAN) and the Family Court Self Help Center to provide same day advice and representation in emergency matters. We have helped parents file custody cases, seek enforcement of existing orders, and secure emergency changes to custody schedules. In one such case, Francesca Martin’s (name changed) two children were scheduled (per a DC custody order) to stay with their father over spring break in another state. When DC’s spring break came early due to COVID-19, Ms. Martin agreed to move the visit up, but at the end of the visit, the children’s father refused to give her children back and threatened violence against her. The father was also not giving one of the children her daily prescription medications. The police in the father’s state couldn’t enforce the DC custody order.
Legal Aid attorney Jamie Sparano filed an emergency motion for contempt of the custody order and attended a virtual emergency hearing the same day. The court agreed that the children’s father was in contempt and ordered him to return the children the coming weekend. The father complied with the order, and the children are now safe in DC with their mother.
Legal Aid is also working closely with DC SAFE and DC Superior Court to help domestic violence survivors file Civil Protection Order petitions online. When the Domestic Violence Division begins to hear cases again, we will be ready to assist survivors secure more long-term security.
Collaborating to Help DC Residents Understand Their Rights
One of Legal Aid’s first actions at the start of the pandemic was to reach out to current and former clients to check in, see if they had any new problems, and to ensure they understood their rights and the new programs that had been created to assist them.
For example, we have helped clients register with the IRS to obtain stimulus benefits for themselves and/or their children, as many do not file tax returns or receive benefits that would get them payments automatically. And before the stimulus payments were released, Legal Aid hosted a webinar in which volunteer attorney Tom Papson and staff attorney Amee Vora educated service providers about the eligibility rules and processes for obtaining stimulus payments.
We have been especially active on increasing awareness about unemployment benefits. Legal Aid attorney Drake Hagner co-hosted a webinar with Tonya Love of the AFL-CIO on unemployment assistance and appeared on a Facebook Live with Council Member Silverman. “We are used to working with little, used to working against the odds,” she told DC Bar reporter Jeremy Conrad in March.
Legal Aid is working with our partners in the legal services community to make it easier for District residents to secure legal assistance, including by coordinating to create, for the first time, a single point-of-entry for DC residents struggling with landlord-tenant matters. Now tenants can call one number to request legal help remotely, rather than undergoing multiple interviews with various providers to get assistance. And, soon defendants in debt collection, child support and some types of public benefits matters will be able to as well.