The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives so much in the last four months, but it also has cast a long-time reality into sharp relief. Each day, we are reminded of the fact that grocery clerks, package deliverers, waiters, sanitation workers, meat and food processers, child care workers, and on and on, make our economy and society run. All of these people exist through low-paying jobs with high levels of personal interaction and contacts, putting them at great risk of contracting the virus. These Nebraskans continue to face the greatest risks, and as rates of sickness and death become clearer, have borne the largest burden.
They were essential before the coronavirus emerged, and they are even more so today. These are also Legal Aid’s clients, struggling to survive in uncertain times.
Now, as we get deeper into the pandemic, the more we come to comprehend the legal problems they face. Since the early days, the calls coming in to our COVID-19 Legal Hotline, on our AccessLine®, and online reflect the realities of the deepening economic crisis. Scared essential workers call with questions about their fear of contracting the coronavirus as they return to hazardous conditions. Unemployed service workers endlessly wait for benefits, and need health care and food. Garnishments start to stack up, as creditors once again execute on old debts, even though there is little income to pay. Renters call us terrified because they are facing imminent eviction.
Looking ahead, there is little improvement. An astounding 147,694 initial unemployment claims – more than the populations of Grand Island, Bellevue, Norfolk, Scottsbluff/Gering, and Hastings combined – were filed March through June. The unemployment rate – 8.3 percent in April and back down to 5.2 percent in May – is still over twice the “normal” level. It is estimated over 37,000 jobs will be permanently lost by December 2021 without additional federal aid. Recent reports project a remarkable 18 percent of Nebraska’s renters (over 100,000 households) will be at risk of evictions from non-payment of rent by the end of September 2020, just a few months away.
Legal Aid, however, is there for these struggling Nebraskans. We are focusing our legal skills on the most critical legal needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic: securing unemployment and related public benefits; keeping reduced income and assets from debt collectors; ensuring use of sick leave protections; and avoiding evictions for inability to pay rent in full. By honing in on these needs, we know we can be most successful in helping low-income Nebraskans survive and recover from the damaging economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As anticipated, we are now seeing steady increases in demand. Despite the risks to our clients, Nebraska courts have long heard in-person cases affecting our clients, including evictions and debt collections, and now are reopening with a vengeance. The limited state-level eviction moratorium through May and federal through July means there now will be many more evictions as widespread inability to pay rent meets the end of limited eviction protections. Demand for our legal services is ticking up, with much more to come.
Legal Aid has responded, in collaboration with community partners across the state, to these high priority legal needs. But the demand is stretching our limited resources. At the same time as the COVID-19 related demand for legal services grows, state funding to support Legal Aid has dramatically declined as a result of the pandemic. Legal Aid projects a budgetary shortfall this year of over $300,000 from its primary state funding- only part of which are being filled with other sources of support.
Yet Legal Aid will persevere. And while the future is unknown of course, we already have one major takeaway: by targeting critical legal needs facing our essential worker low-income clients, Legal Aid is key to helping them gain a long-term, resilient recovery. Legal Aid is truly a legal safety net during this time of crisis, a role now more important than ever.
Milo Mumgaard, Legal Aid of Nebraska Executive Director