A Q&A with Dolores Ayala, Legal Aid Chicago
Dolores is the Supervisory Attorney of Legal Aid Chicago’s Immigrant and Workers’ Rights Practice Group
In the past month, we’ve seen skyrocketing unemployment claims in the wake of the pandemic and people need help navigating this crisis. How much has demand for legal assistance increased at your organization?
Among the many fears confronting our clients at this time, anxiety about their livelihoods is paramount. People are confused about what unemployment benefits are available, whether they are eligible, what the federal legislation means for them, along with more basic questions about how to apply and how long until they can receive their benefits. The demand for legal assistance has definitely risen at Legal Aid Chicago in the last few weeks, but I think that we will see an even greater upsurge in the weeks ahead once people’s claims are adjudicated.
What are the most common problems/questions people are coming to you with?
Right now, the questions really result from difficulties people are having with the application process at the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES). In normal times, people could call the local office for clarification on the application process. Now, the staff at IDES is facing a deluge of claimants and potential claimants and has just been overwhelmed. They have been working very hard to post answers to the most common application and eligibility questions on their website, and I expect to see a much improved process in the next couple of weeks.
In crises like these, we also see a lot of misinformation spread. What are some misconceptions you want to clear up when it comes to workers’ rights?
I’m not sure I would call it a misconception, but there is definitely a lot of confusion around whether self-employed, independent contractors, or gig workers are eligible for unemployment benefits. Under the Illinois statute, they are not eligible. But the federal legislation specifically provides that these workers are eligible for up to 29 weeks of benefits through December 31, 2020, that payments will be applied retroactively, and that they are eligible for a $600 weekly benefit through July 2020. The glitch is that they must apply through the usual state application process, and IDES does not yet have a mechanism in place to process their claims. The advice for these workers is: do not apply at this time, because your claim will be automatically denied. Wait until IDES gives the green light.
This pandemic will very likely lead to a crisis in the courts as well. What policy responses would you like to see implemented to help address this issue and ensure people have access to the justice system?
I think that courts will need to adapt to remote work the same way that other entities are adapting. Courts will need to provide that judicial proceedings and court operations be conducted remotely, such through video, audio and telephonic means. This includes depositions. Consideration should be given to tolling the statutes of limitations for bringing civil actions, and extensions of time within which to bring civil actions to trial.
How are you holding up during the pandemic?
I find myself reading from sources that give inspiration and spiritual guidance. One source stated: “What I go through in life is not as important as how I interpret the experience. In other words, I have a choice about my attitude.” Some days, I forget, and get frustrated. And then I remember again how lucky I am, in so many ways.
How has the Work from Home move impacted your family?
It is not so much the work from home as it is the stay at home after work that bothers us!