While working remotely and contending with other disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic, more than 60 UCLA School of Law students have 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,” said UCLA Law student and project organizer Jordan Palmer, who clerked for Local 11 last year.

The effort grew out of UCLA Law’s Labor and Economic Justice Clinic, which is part of the all-volunteer network of the law student–run El Centro Legal Clinics. Students drew on advice from Vice Dean for Experiential Education Sameer Ashar, who runs UCLA Law’s Workers, Law and Organizing Clinic, and 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 now includes nearly 200 volunteers who complete training in the fundamentals of unemployment insurance before they work one-on-one, in English and Spanish, with unemployed union members. Often, individual applications require the work of multiple volunteers who must 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. 

To date, the effort has 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 said.