By Heather Rawlyk
The Capital of Annapolis
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — They line up before the doors open, needing help in areas they never imagined — cash assistance, unemployment, food stamps.
In the lobby of the Maryland Legal Aid office, attorneys scramble to find chairs for an overflow of people seeking a legal hand. They’re people such as David Gaines and Margaret Sullivan.
Gaines, a middle-aged Annapolis man, lost his $60,000 job in 2009 and needed help getting his unemployment benefits reinstated. Sullivan, an 82-year-old woman who has worked her entire adult life, was laid off last year from her job at an Annapolis department store. When she had problems obtaining unemployment benefits, she, too, had nowhere else to turn.
In the past, these were not the typical clients at the state’s largest nonprofit organization providing free legal services to the poor. But as the economy has slowed, these former middle-income wage earners are flocking to Maryland Legal Aid to take seats next to the traditional low-income clients.
“I’m struck by the sight of many people wearing ties and white shirts filling our seats,” said Wilhelm Joseph Jr., the agency’s executive director. “They look bewildered and scared as they humbly take a seat right next to others who have been down and out for a long time.”
Maryland Legal Aid, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, has seen its annual caseload increase from about 40,000 in 2007 to nearly 70,000 in the fiscal year that ended in June, said Joe Surkiewicz, an agency spokesman.
The increase reflects the times.
“More people are relying on public benefits or (trying) to find better benefits,” Joseph said. “What happens when the economy gets tight, people lose their jobs, have no income, savings went out, and all the issues of debts not being paid … squeeze on them.
“…It’s people who for the first time are saying, `I need help to do this … I don’t know what to do, I don’t understand.”
It’s people such as Gaines.
Gaines, 57, was making $60,000 a year as regional sales manager for a company that supplied the message boards and orange cones that alert travelers of construction. When the economy went sour, the work dried up and Gaines was let go.
“We just had a lot of competition,” he said at his Annapolis apartment last week.
Gaines received severance pay. When that ran out, he was approved for unemployment.
In two years, Gaines estimates he has sent out at least 500 resumes for jobs. But at his age he has had little luck finding something in his field.
Determined to take “anything,” he got a small job making $10 an hour delivering parts for an auto repair shop in Glen Burnie. But on Jan. 1, 2010, he got into a “fender bender” in one of the company’s trucks.
“I lost my job and was back on unemployment,” he said.
Two months later, he got another small job, keeping golfers moving along at an Edgewater golf course.
It wasn’t a dream gig, but it got him out of the house.
“I was making $8 an hour,” he said. “It’s depressing, but it got me outside and not thinking about everything.”
In April of that year, he was driving home from Bible study when he got into another traffic accident. He totaled his Honda Civic and ended up at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. He had a broken sternum and two fractured vertebrae. The injuries left him in an upper body cast for two months.
He continued to work at the golf course, but under limitations from his doctors.
“Within unemployment rules you could work a certain amount but still get your benefits,” he said.
But one day, unemployment papers were sent to Gaines’ manager to fill out. The manager mentioned he was disabled due to a car accident.
That prompted an investigation, which led to Gaines’ benefits being cut off. Officials said Gaines could not be looking for work if he was disabled and should be getting disability benefits, which are much lower than unemployment.
“I told them yes I was hurt, but that didn’t preclude me from searching for a job in my field,” he said.
But his explanation didn’t help. Weeks later, he got a letter from the state saying he needed to repay the unemployment money.
Gaines had no money for an attorney. His grown son, who was in law school at the time, recommended Legal Aid.
Gaines was set up with attorney Virginia Rosa, of the agency’s Annapolis office.
She proved to the court that Gaines’ restrictions were temporary and had ended in June 2010. She got his unemployment back and nixed the back-payment demands.
“What Virginia was able to do was remove the collection notice,” he said. “She had my back money restored and my future money made available to me. She was a tremendous help.”
Since 2008, unemployment insurance cases at the agency rose 153 percent. Consumer collection cases, including default on debt, wage garnishments and Social Security attachments, have jumped 30 percent.
Public benefits cases increased 156 percent, and food stamp cases grew by 72 percent.
And that’s not counting people who were turned away, often because the agency was at capacity.
There’s a shortage of lawyers willing to work in lower-paying public service roles such as Legal Aid.
Only 0.7 percent — or 275 — of the state’s 35,000 lawyers are employed in Legal Services positions. They’re left to serve the 9.2 percent of Marylanders below the poverty line.
That means 1,931 low-income people for each Legal Services lawyer.
For Marylanders above the poverty line that ratio is one lawyer for every 165 people.
“Sometimes, frankly, we get maxed out,” said Anita Bailey, chief attorney at the Annapolis office. “We have to refer people to other resources or give limited advice.”
Judge Pamela North, the Circuit Court member of the Anne Arundel Pro Bono Committee, said she wishes more attorneys would take cases for diminished or no fees, so those who are turned down by Legal Aid aren’t left without representation.
They come to court with “no idea what they’re supposed to do,” North said. And judges cannot assist them in the process.
To qualify for Legal Aid, a person must have an annual family income of no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the agency’s website.
In 2009, Sullivan fell into that category.
In her 80-plus years, the twice-widowed mother of five had never been fired.
So it was a shock when after more than a decade of selling jewelry at the JC Penney store at Westfield Annapolis mall, she was called into her manager’s office and told she was being let go.
“That just broke me down,” Sullivan said from her Glen Burnie condo this week. “I never expected it.”
Sullivan, a petite Red Hatter who has worked her entire adult life with careers in real estate, teaching and sales, suddenly found herself an unemployed 80-something in today’s volatile job market. Her Social Security is not enough to pay her mortgage, she said, and she relied on the job to keep the roof over her head.
When she was denied unemployment benefits, Sullivan turned to Maryland Legal Aid.
Rosa fought to get Sullivan the benefits — and won.
“We went to court and the judge said, `This is ridiculous,”‘ Sullivan said. “I won my case.”
Sullivan said she never would have made it without Rosa’s help.
She was just approved for another year of unemployment. She doesn’t know what next year will bring.
Sullivan is looking for part-time work, hopefully in another department store or boutique. She needs the income to keep her condo. She also loves to work.
“I hate not working,” she said. “I miss knowing I have to get up and go. It motivates me. … I’ll keep persevering and see if I can find something.”
Bailey said cases like Sullivan’s are common.
“A lot of times, we’re only solving one piece of their problem,” she said. “We do the best we can to help them fix whatever is in our power to help them fix.”
Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)