Editor’s note: On the Front Lines recognizes those in the community who are confronting the coronavirus pandemic head-on, while the rest of us do our part by stepping back.
Juliana Repp has spent her entire life helping the underdogs.
And with nearly 1 million unemployment claims filed in recent weeks due to layoffs caused by the coronavirus pandemic, there is no shortage of underdogs these days.
As the managing attorney at the Spokane Unemployment Law Project, Repp’s phone has been ringing off the hook.
Repp didn’t have an easy childhood. Her mother, a full-blooded Nez Perce tribal member, developed arthritis and was disabled. She experienced discrimination both because of her heritage and disability, Repp said. Repp’s twin sister died less than a week after the girls were born prematurely.
“That whole backdrop shaped our early years,” Repp said.
Despite their struggles, Repp’s parents helped others and instilled the same values in their children, Repp said.
“I have a passion for helping the underdog,” Repp said. “Maybe it’s partially because I started out life as a three-and-a-half-pound underdog myself.”
Repp went to law school at Gonzaga University and began her career as a public defender on the Colville Indian Reservation.
She had her own practice, focused on federal Indian law and tribal law, for 15 years that caused her to travel extensively.
In 2019, Repp was ready for a change but wanted to continue serving others, so she took a job at the Unemployment Law Project.
The Seattle-based nonprofit belongs to the Washington State Alliance for Equal Justice and represents claimants in court proceedings within the Washington State Office of Administrative Hearings after their unemployment claims have been denied. Repp’s office takes the vast majority of the cases people come to it with. When they can’t take a case, they often offer advice.
Call volume has increased by 200% since Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order went into effect, Repp said.
Many of the recent calls haven’t been about claims being denied but rather about problems with filing claims.
“A lot of them called us because they couldn’t get through to the Employment Security Department,” Repp said.
Someone from the office usually gives advice on new federal and state regulations and on the process of pursuing a claim.
“They’re trying to figure out why the process hasn’t gone smoother, and they’re anxious because they don’t know where their check is,” Repp said. “They want to buy groceries and they want to pay their mortgage payment. You know, they want to pay their bills.”
To help with the increase in calls, Repp said, the Unemployment Law Project used grant funding from the Legal Foundation of Washington to hire a paralegal and part-time attorney. The office has law interns almost year-round and plans to hire extra interns this summer, while also working with lawyers who want to volunteer their time.
Repp has also been working to reach out to other nonprofits that work with marginalized communities so they know legal resources are out there.
With hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims filed weekly during the pandemic, people can fall through the cracks and get frustrated. But chatting with people on the phone can be calming and healing, Repp said.
“Claimants, I think, want to talk to someone and so they’ll talk a little bit and we may even find something to laugh about,” Repp said. “It’s kind of good medicine for both of us, just connecting with the outside world and trying to help them in any way that I can.”
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