In late March, I received a call from my friend and mentor Jeremy Blasi, general counsel of UNITE HERE Local 11, asking if the Labor and Economic Justice Clinic (LEJC) at UCLA Law School would collaborate with the union on a new project assisting thousands of Local 11 members in filing for unemployment insurance. Local 11 is a progressive labor union for hospitality sector workers; its members are largely immigrant workers and workers of color at hotels, cafeterias, stadiums, convention centers, and airports. Local 11 is well known for its social and racial justice orientation, leadership on immigrants' rights, and militant worker base. 

As California’s stay-at-home order went into effect and businesses across the state shuttered, the industries that Local 11 members worked in were particularly hard hit. The Local correctly anticipated that 90-100 percent of their roughly 30,000 members would be laid off in the coming weeks. The local also anticipated that while some of its members would be comfortable filing their initial unemployment insurance (UI) claims on their own, others would be unfamiliar with the process or have too many unanswered questions to do so. In addition, some members have limited or no computer or internet access, are not equipped to navigate technical difficulties, or have limited English-language skills, barriers that might prevent them from submitting claims without assistance. 

Even under normal circumstances, the union would have had an extremely difficult time providing direct services to so many members at once. But these were not normal circumstances. Because the layoffs had frozen dues, the union was facing a severe budget shortfall and had already been forced to lay off some of its own staff. The bureaucratic and hostile unemployment insurance system, administered by the California Economic Development Department (EDD), which was facing its own staff shortage, only made things more difficult. Local 11 would not be providing a simple and straightforward service but helping thousands of workers navigate a complicated maze involving a great deal of legalese. 

It seemed like an impossible and overwhelming task, but over the past three months, we’ve established a network of over 200 volunteers who provided unemployment insurance assistance to thousands of union members. We learned a lot along the way about how to create structures to train, engage, and sustain volunteers; how to provide ongoing assistance to members who needed to file appeals or didn’t hear back on their initial claims; and how to navigate potential liability issues as volunteers assisted people filing pro se government forms. Given the continued demands for unemployment insurance assistance — as well as the likely flood of evictions that will face many of the same communities — we’re sharing these lessons in the hopes that other organizations can establish their own mutual aid networks to assist the communities hardest hit by the economic devastation of the pandemic.

 

The Unemployment Insurance Project

To find volunteers, I started by reaching out to the 20 or so students already in the LEJC clinic, followed by the rest of the Law School. There was an immediate outpouring of support. Within days, over sixty UCLA law students signed up to volunteer; some of these volunteers began reaching out to their personal networks to recruit more volunteers. A week later, the number of volunteers had doubled, and Stanford law students had offered to pitch in as well. As word of the program spread, we decided to open up the opportunity to non-law students, providing additional training to teach them the basic ethics of assisting people with filing pro se government forms. Three weeks after I sent out my initial email, over two hundred students and even a handful of University and Law School professors had signed up to volunteer.

We started hosting regular trainings over Zoom, led by Aaron Greenberg, a Local 11 researcher who, like many remaining staff, had transitioned to helping members file for UI. After attending a few trainings, I started hosting them as well. Once volunteers were trained, we asked them to sign confidentiality agreements and complete a scheduler so that Aaron could schedule them for phone appointments with members. Once volunteers had appointments scheduled, Aaron gave them basic instructions, such as texting members in advance to ask them to have their documents ready, and he sent a google form for them to submit at the end of the appointment so we knew how it went. During the appointments, volunteers asked members for permission to create or access their online accounts so that they could complete the claim on their laptop while members answered questions over the phone. The appointments normally lasted between an hour and an hour and a half.

During the first three weeks, we had to do a lot of heavy lifting to create a remote system that could keep the project organized. Some of our major concerns were: supporting and communicating with the volunteers as the number of new volunteers grew rapidly; promptly responding to volunteers questions and issues; maintaining an appropriate level of oversight and supervision; making sure that volunteers followed through with their appointments; filling appointments when a volunteer had to cancel last minute; learning as much as we could about UI and the EDD and sharing that information with our volunteers; keeping up with the EDD as it continued to update its rules and procedures in light of COVID-19; making sure Local 11 members were not slipping through the cracks for any reason; figuring out how to triage the massive number of Local 11 members who wished to schedule appointments; and keeping detailed and thorough records for all of the appointments conducted so far.

During this initial phase, two steps were especially helpful in creating an organized system: We set up a Slack for all of our volunteers and supervising attorneys, and we set up an organizing committee (OC), which met weekly. The organizing committee was particularly important. In the first week or so of the project, there were only about five of us running things, and we needed more help. I started reaching out to our volunteers to see if anyone was interested in taking on more leadership; those who responded were brought into the organizing committee, and each became a point person to coordinate a group of volunteers. OC members would also schedule all of their volunteer group’s individual appointments. At our weekly OC meetings, we spent time discussing and responding to issues as they came up — and anticipating what issues we would face next. Eventually, our OC grew to 20 members, and several of these members began to take on leadership roles in the group. A few of our OC members began hosting volunteer trainings; one, Isabelle Geczy, took charge of organizing the OC itself.

Slack became our primary channel of communication. We started a #uiquestions thread where volunteers could ask questions and get advice in real time. Our OC monitored the Slack, and we tried to answer questions as quickly as possible. Making it easy for volunteers to ask and answer questions enabled us to provide a kind of quality control that would have been impossible otherwise.

Two of our volunteer law students, Sam Keng and Sagar Bajpai, worked with Jeremy to develop a detailed Script and FAQ. We shared the document with our volunteers over google docs, which also allowed us to continue to update the Script and FAQ as new information became available. This resource came to reflect the best of our collective knowledge about UI and served a place where volunteers could seek answers to questions before writing to the Slack channel. The document included a detailed protocol on how to introduce yourself to a member, as well as explanations of some of the more confusing or difficult questions on the initial claim form. Later, at the request of some of our Spanish-speaking volunteers, a volunteer and experienced translator named Marlene De La O recruited six other volunteers to help her translate the Script and FAQ into Spanish.

During this time, the project became a major priority for Local 11. James Gil, a Local 11 organizer, joined the project full time to help us with appointment scheduling and record keeping. He also worked with Local 11’s communications team to help streamline the appointment scheduling process so that our OC no longer had to individually schedule appointments. Soon after, Eva Gil, who works for the Hospitality Training Academy, joined the team full time to help us manage and keep track of the most difficult cases.

We also assembled a larger legal team of supervising attorneys, including pro bono outside counsel Ben O’Donnell and Josh Young from Gilbert & Sackman, and we began to have weekly legal team meetings where we worked to respond to the more technical issues that had come up as we began filing appeals for members whose unemployment claims had been denied. 

One of our greatest challenges was getting accurate information about the UI system. This is a challenge in California, and probably everywhere, for two main reasons. First, unemployment insurance may call itself a pro se process, but the average claimant experiences the unemployment system as a hostile government program that is needlessly bureaucratic and governed by a dense and complex system of rules that are not appropriately straightforward. Some of the EDD’s standard protocols are not easily discoverable on the main page of its website, some of its published protocols conflict with or contradict one another, and even the EDD’s most detailed manuals fail to explain some of the most common issues that applicants run into and how to resolve them. Second, there are very few experts on unemployment insurance in California because helping people file for unemployment insurance is not a lucrative career and the unemployment rate has not been particularly high in recent decades. Moreover, the types of issues that workers faced most commonly before the pandemic related to employer appeals, whereas the types of issues that workers have faced most commonly during the pandemic relate to other types of disqualifications, such as those resulting from identity verification issues, health-related issues, or system errors in locating payroll records.

Sameer Ashar, a UCLA Law professor, helped us reach out to George Warner at Legal Aid at Work, one of the few attorneys in the state with any prior UI experience. We used the information we learned from George to write a new section of our FAQ, which we called “Phase II,” to provide detailed information and a new protocol for our volunteers on how they should respond to post-claims issues. We started hosting Phase II trainings regularly, and we started collecting more information from members so that only volunteers who had attended a Phase II training would be matched with someone who wanted assistance with something other than filing their initial claim. A few members of our OC, including Mary Entoma, Nathaniel Hyman, Cody Eaton, Sofia Goodman Arbona, and Isabelle Geczy, organized a Phase II Kickoff Zoom meeting for all of our volunteers to help smooth and clarify the transition in our project.

By the end of May, our volunteers had filed about 1,100 claims and shifted primarily to taking Phase II appointments. By mid-June, about sixty of our volunteers were trained in Phase II, and we were assisting about 200 members with these issues.

 

Victories, Challenges, and Reflections

The most incredible part of this project has been the patience, motivation, and brilliance of our participants. Our volunteers are keenly aware that unemployment benefits are the one thing standing between many people and abject poverty right now. I have never seen so many volunteers take so much initiative to do such sustained and labor-intensive work.

The volunteer engagement in the project is also a credit to the hard work of our organizing committee, and some of the strategies we used to recruit, engage, and retain volunteers. We worked hard to strike the right balance of providing lines of communication and sufficient supervision to volunteers without micromanaging them, and we collaborated to provide regular check-ins so that there was a sense of cohesion within our network despite its decentralized nature. On a weekly basis, OC members would take turns drafting emails to all our project participants to highlight our successes and talk about how our project was impacting members’ lives. We also experimented with hosting office hours on Zoom. Midway through the project, I sent out a survey to all the volunteers. Our OC took the feedback seriously and used it to make changes to the program. 

Over the past three months, we have accumulated a long list of success stories. Sofia Goodman Arbona helped a woman figure out that the reason she had been waiting two months for her benefits and received no communication from the EDD was a typo in her mailing address; she helped correct the typo, and the woman received her EDD debit card in the mail a week later with thousands of dollars in benefits on it. Emily St. Marie helped a woman who had been disqualified write a detailed letter to the EDD, convincing them to revoke the disqualification without requiring her to go through an appeal hearing. Tatum Wheeler helped a woman who hadn’t heard anything in response to her UI claim in over two months write a detailed letter to the EDD. She got a call from the EDD one week later telling her that the agency had resolved her issue and she would receive her full benefits for the entire time she had been waiting. One of our OC members, Spencer Hattemer, was able to help us set up a meeting with a local state representative so we could share some of the most common issues we were seeing and advocate for our proposed solutions.

Many of our volunteers have become experts in their own rights and shared their new skills and knowledge with their communities, helping people outside of our project navigate the complex UI system and receive their benefits in a timely manner. Likewise, through phone conversations with our volunteers, many of Local 11’s members have also become more skilled in dealing with the UI system. In this way, there is a skills-building and skills-sharing component built into the work that we do which amplifies the impact of our project. We have also expanded the reach of our network by inviting other legal service providers, labor organizers, and workers’ rights organizations to attend our Zoom trainings and access our Script and FAQ so that they can develop their own mutual aid systems.

The greatest challenge our project has faced is dealing with the unemployment insurance system itself. Navigating a system as frustrating, bureaucratic, unforgiving, tedious, and confusing as UI requires a huge degree of patience. Many people assume that the massive numbers of pending and denied claims during the pandemic results from  incompetence or poor leadership at the EDD. It’s true that the EDD was unprepared for a disaster of this scale, and understaffing and weak infrastructure (its outdated website, for example) have slowed things down considerably. 

But it’s not true that the EDD’s job, first and foremost, is to make sure people receive the benefits they deserve. In fact, the EDD ’s job is to uphold a set of laws designed to make unemployment insurance difficult to get and easy to lose. The people who run EDD today inherited these rules from an era in which public benefits policy was principally designed to undercut the bargaining power of low-wage earners in order to coerce them to accept whatever work was available in an economy of rapidly deteriorating employment protections.

Every issue that people are having with the UI system now is just an amplified version of a problem that already existed. The California government’s paternalistic regulations exemplify its cruel stance that not all unemployed people are deserving of government assistance, even if that assistance would consist only of funds that workers already earned through their own labor. 

A great deal of what our project does is fill the gap left open by the failures of our local and state government. I am wary of the problems that this type of volunteering can create. I worry about how to make our project as rewarding as possible for its participants and as helpful as possible without exploiting anyone in our network or justifying the UI system as it currently exists.

We realized early on that UI is an ongoing process designed to create new problems. Even as we filed  huge numbers of claims for members, those filings did not decrease requests for assistance because the same people came back with new issues. Anyone designing their own UI mutual aid network should assume that each person they assist may need continued assistance and follow-up. The network should be designed such that it’s always possible for people who formerly received assistance to make new appointments. 

The other major challenges our project has faced stem from the fact that we’ve been building the plane as we fly. We’ve been especially concerned about  potential liability issues, which we’ve worked hard to head off. That is why we set up a legal team, why we have lawyers monitor our Slack regularly, and why we require non-law students to attend an additional training. The assistance our volunteers have provided in Phase II is much more akin to traditional legal work, so we changed much of our Phase II protocol to involve closer attorney supervision. We have had to be careful that our volunteers don’t give any unauthorized legal advice and that we maintain a consistent level of quality control even as the project expands and transforms.

My own challenge has been the totally unmanageable number of emails I’ve received. If I were to set up the project from scratch, I would want every piece of communication to take place through Slack. This would have done three things for me: One, it would have kept everything in one place; two, it would have made it possible for me to more easily share and delegate my role (I can add other people into channels on Slack, but I can’t add them to my email inbox); and three, it would make it possible for me to devote a set amount of time to the project each day, allowing me to take breaks. 

I had assumed at the outset that there might be a time when we were able to meet the needs of Local 11 members and open our project up to the larger community, but this has simply not been possible. It is an enormous task just to assist Local 11’s membership, and we don’t have the resources to expand while maintaining the level and quality of assistance we’ve been able to provide so far. I hope this information can serve as a blueprint for other organizations that wish to set up their own volunteer networks. Some friends of mine in DSA-LA recently organized a teach-in on Unemployment Councils. These kinds of organizations would be particularly well-suited as homes for UI mutual aid networks like ours. 

What started as a law school clinic has grown into a well-organized remote mutual aid network of skilled and experienced volunteers. Two goals we still have for our project are to advocate for long-term changes within the EDD and to provide other kinds of legal services as the COVID-19 pandemic creates new legal issues for vulnerable communities. We expect that the next problem many Local 11 members — and unemployed people across the country — will face relates to housing security, particularly once the eviction moratorium is lifted. We are now considering what sort of training and oversight would be required to enable our network to help Local 11 members fight evictions. We hope other organizations can also use our model to work with unemployed people across the U.S.

 

Thank you to every one of our incredible volunteers, to UNITE HERE Local 11, to our legal team, and to all the members of our past and current organizing committee: Aaron Greenberg, Allison Chao, Ana Elena Smith, Ben Graubart, Bradan Litzinger, Brittany Montano, Charles Hancock, Cody Eaton, Ela Diffenbaugh, Emily St. Marie, Esteban Aguel, Eva Gil, Fernando Sandoval, Isabelle Geczy, James Gil, Jennifer Canico, Jeremy Blasi, Jessica Santiago, Justin Henry, Mary Entoma, Matt Erle, Maxwell Ulin, Michaela Posner, Nathaniel Hyman, Rachel Waterman, Sagar Bajpai, Sam Keng, Shant Avetyan, Sharoon Gonzalez, Sofia Goodman Arbona, Spencer Hattemer, and Stephanie Bazan. 

 

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