NEW SERIES: MEET OUR UNITS

Standing on Fifth Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, an early 20th century brick building rises from the sidewalk, blue awnings flapping in the wind. The awnings read “Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid” The building has a secure access entrance, and all you can see from the sidewalk is a staircase and closed doors.

According to the website, Legal Aid provides legal representation, advice, and referrals to help with housing, immigration, and employment issues among others. But how does that work? What happens when you move through the glass doors and into the upper-floor you can see from the street?

Welcome to our icebreaker blog series, “Meet Our Units,” where we begin to answer those questions. Legal Aid operates with a number of practice-area units, and we have been speaking with supervising attorneys to learn more about their work. Piece by piece, we’ll get to know and understand the various units, projects, and people that make up the Legal Aid puzzle. We start here by introducing the Public Benefits Unit.

PUBLIC BENEFITS UNIT

  • Legal Advocate – Lori Leistritz
  • Staff Attorney – Lars Markeson
  • Supervising Attorney – Anne Quincy
  • Assistant Supervising Attorney / Wage Theft Project – Ellen Smart

What kind of work does the Public Benefits Unit do?

The Minneapolis Public Benefits unit serves clients in Hennepin County who encounter problems with MFIP, General Assistance, Child Care Assistance, SNAP, Emergency Assistance, Unemployment, SSI, and Medical Assistance. We advise people about eligibility, and help if benefits have been cut or stopped. If an application is denied, we represent people in administrative appeals and when necessary, we take cases to district court and federal court.

How has the pandemic presented challenges or shifted your approach to advocacy?

During the pandemic, unemployment skyrocketed. Since March 2020, the Minneapolis office has assisted over 220 clients with unemployment insurance (UI) cases. The UI application is not easily accessible by cell phone, and when public resources like libraries shut down, many people were not able to apply. As we identified barriers to the application process, we started helping clients with their initial applications – something we had not done before – focusing on non-English speakers and those without internet access. We trained volunteer attorneys and advocates from other Legal Aid units to help cover the increased workload.

How did the unit respond/adapt to the needs of clients and the community during the pandemic and uprisings? What was learned?

Most of our clients are women and people of color, and we understand the historic disadvantages and systemic racism behind this. Benefits programs are hard to navigate in the best of times, and difficulties increased when agency offices closed. We met clients wherever and however we could, including at food shelves and health providers, to help them understand their eligibility for benefits.

A Black woman who owns a small retail clothing business in South Minneapolis had to close her store and apply for UI when the pandemic started. Then her store was damaged in the uprising. We represented her in her UI case – which she won – and although we couldn’t represent her beyond that, we researched and advised her about small business loans and rental assistance, connected her with volunteer lawyers and her city council member, and helped her with faxing documents. She and her family faced loss of the small amounts of wealth and independence they had managed to put together when the double-punch of the pandemic and uprising hit the city. We saw how important it is to provide flexible wraparound services wherever we can.

Can you tell us about another case?

In 2021, we represented a single mother who was fired for missing four days of work without calling in. In fact, our client missed only two days, found coverage for those days, and returned to work with a doctor's note. She wasn’t even scheduled for one of the alleged absences. At hearing, the employer admitted to inadequate attendance records and the judge found in our client’s favor. She received 15 weeks of retroactive unemployment payments.

Pictured above: Anne Quincy, Supervising Attorney of the Public Benefits unit, started at Legal Aid in 1994. She has a wealth of experience representing SSI and SSDI claimants, as well as welfare and Medical Assistance beneficiaries. Raised by public school teachers who told their children to pick a career path helpful to others, Anne chose Loyola University School of Law because it had a low-income legal clinic. Read more about Anne here: Anne Quincy: The Long View on Government Benefits | Q&A (attorneyatlawmagazine.com)

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