While working remotely and contending with other disruptions during onset of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, more than 60 UCLA School of Law students leapt into action to create and volunteer for an effort to secure unemployment benefits for hospitality and restaurant workers in California. During its first week of operation, the project filed claims to return more than $1.4 million in unemployment benefits to members of the UNITE HERE Local 11 union who lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis.
The project was launched during spring break at the request of Local 11, many of whose members were unable to complete the technically challenging process of applying for unemployment benefits because they could not access the online system and government phone lines were overburdened.
“Our volunteers are extremely hard working and self-motivated, and they repeatedly express to me how happy they are to be able to do something to help other people while they are stuck in quarantine, scared and worried about all of the people who are struggling right now,” says UCLA Law student and project organizer Jordan Palmer ’21, who had clerked for Local 11 and then worked at Gilbert & Sackman as part of a Peggy Browning labor law fellowship during this past summer.
The effort grew out of UCLA Law’s Labor and Economic Justice Clinic, which is part of the all-volunteer network of student-run El Centro Legal Clinics. Students collaborated with Local 11’s in-house counsel, attracting additional volunteers from Stanford Law School, Yale Law School, UC Irvine School of Law and others.
Starting with a core group of UCLA Law students, the project grew to include nearly 200 volunteers who completed training in the fundamentals of unemployment insurance before working one-on-one, in English and Spanish, with unemployed union members. Often, individual applications required the work of multiple volunteers who had to hand off work to each other because the state’s unemployment website is so strained that simply completing a claim takes an uncommonly long time.
Within a few weeks, the effort helped more than 650 workers complete unemployment insurance applications.
“All of our amazing volunteers are spending a substantial amount of the little free time they have on this clinic, and when they’re not volunteering for us, many of them are sharing their new skills and resources with friends and family members who are also applying for unemployment,” Palmer says.
UPDATE: Six months after its launch, the project had trained and supervised more than 270 volunteers, including 81 UCLA Law students, and assisted more than 1,600 union members. UCLA Law students had collectively volunteered more than 500 hours, helping Local 11 members file claims, troubleshoot issues, write letters, challenge disqualifications and appear in appeal hearings before administrative law judges. The union estimated that the clinic had successfully filed or resolved claims totaling about $33 million.