Unemployment Clinic Update COVID

School of Law Unemployment Compensation Clinic Anticipates Surge

Since he became supervising attorney of the Duquesne University School of Law Unemployment Compensation Clinic in 1996, Michael Simon and his law students have seen everything from recession to natural disasters. But the COVID-19 pandemic may prove to be their greatest challenge yet.

"We anticipate a surge in cases within the next month or two as unemployment soars," said Simon, a 1980 graduate of the law school.

As the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry works to process record numbers of unemployment claims, the Unemployment Compensation Clinic is opening its services to anyone at any stage of the unemployment compensation process. The decision was made early during the quarantine to ensure students and supervising attorneys can offer maximum assistance.

Typically, the clinic receives referrals from Neighborhood Legal Services, a non-profit, public interest law firm that provides civil legal assistance to under-served and vulnerable residents of Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence Counties. During steadier times, law students take on cases once a person who files for unemployment is denied benefits. Students work an average of 10 hours a week on cases.

For years following the recession of 2008, the number of cases ranged from 100 to 150. In recent years, due to the low level of unemployment, students each year handled roughly 35 to 50 cases, which usually involved evidentiary hearings before unemployment referees, who are similar to administrative law judges. Cases typically require face-to-face client contact and "in-person" unemployment referee hearings with witnesses, the employer and attorneys.

Because this hands-on training is not possible during the current quarantine, interviews with clients will be done by phone, with dramatic changes to the hearings. Students are adapting to applying the rules of evidence, preparing cases and drafting appellate briefs from home. They assist clients by phone and video conference with Simon and Justin Romano, who also is a supervising attorney for the clinic.

"In the next couple of months, it is most definitely going to happen-hearings and referees' offices switching to online," Simon said. "During the evidentiary hearing people present documents and testimony in person. Now, no one will physically appear in front of the referee."

"That could present challenges for any number of reasons," he said. "The spoken word is a very small part of communication between individuals. There are physical cues," Simon said. "But, we will be here for everyone who needs us."

"I've been telling my students to step back from this situation and remember, particularly in difficult times, what other people are going through," Director of Clinical and International Programs and Assistant Professor of Law Kate Norton said. "If we can keep that in mind and continue to offer services to those in need, we can also teach students how to serve in a time of crisis, even if it's a different method."

Call the Unemployment Compensation Clinic at 412.396.4704 and leave a detailed message or email Michael Simon at mdsimon20@msn.com.

Duquesne University

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