One Baltimore for Jobs: Civil Legal Aid Removes Barriers to Employment

Vol. 20 No. 1

By

Deb Seltzer is the Grants Manager of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation.

Introduction

Community redevelopment in low-income neighborhoods often means focusing on the specific needs of individual residents and working to improve their educational and employment outcomes. But for those residents with legal issues, job opportunities can be slim. Criminal records, lack of transportation, debt, and other problems pose major barriers to gaining and keeping stable employment.

 

Job Training Is Not Enough

Following the unrest in Baltimore in April 2015, the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development (MOED) and Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation received a $4.9 million demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to provide innovative services to residents of distressed areas. With the demonstration grant funding, MOED launched One Baltimore for Jobs (1B4J), a comprehensive job training program focused in predominantly African-American, low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore.

While skills training is important, it cannot remove all barriers to employment alone. Therefore, a key component of 1B4J is to provide participants with wrap-around supports. MOED sought community partners to provide supportive services, such as mental health and substance abuse programs. They also recognized that civil legal aid could play an important role in improving the efficacy of their training programs.

 

Pairing Civil Legal Aid with Workforce Development Programs

 

Grants for Community Redevelopment Legal Assistance

At the same time, Maryland’s IOLTA program, Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), received funds designated for community redevelopment through a national bank settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. From this funding, MLSC awarded special project grants to three grantees—Homeless Persons Representation Project, Maryland Legal Aid, and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service—to provide civil legal services as a supportive service through 1B4J.

Each grantee was assigned several 1B4J job training sites. The workforce development programs are diverse—offering training including medical technology, construction trades, solar panel installation, and more—so the grantees worked with the job training organizations to develop the most effective programs for each site.

The grantees also worked together to take advantage of their respective strengths. For example, attorneys at Homeless Persons Representation Project are well-versed in public benefits, including veterans’ benefits and subsidized housing, while Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service staff and volunteers have more experience in family and consumer law. The organizations can easily refer clients to each other since they developed an intake process together.

 

Wide Range of Legal Services Provided

MLSC grantees serve 1B4J in a variety of ways, including legal issue screening, know your rights workshops and direct representation. The goal of the civil legal aid component is to remove barriers, both to gaining employment—such as through criminal record expungement—and to ongoing work attendance—such as resolving housing and transportation issues.

At the outset of the program, the legal services providers quickly found that both participants and job training staff were unfamiliar with the benefits of legal services. They were often unaware that a lawyer could assist with debt issues or denial of benefits. Presenting a wide array of legal options has become an important first step with each round of screenings.

 

Wide Variety of Legal Issues Addressed

In the first six months of 1B4J, MLSC grantees opened more than 350 cases, ranging from consumer issues, to child support modifications, to housing subsidies, to driver’s licenses. Grantee trainings and presentations were attended by more than 330 program participants and staff. The grantees are also beginning to collect data on economic benefits gained for clients:  To date they have secured thousands of dollars in public benefits, helping to stabilize the finances of low-income Baltimore residents. The 1B4J clients often have more than one legal problem each, and therefore their relationship with the legal services providers sometimes outlasts their time in the training program as they work to resolve each issue.

“John” is just one success story to emerge from 1B4J. John made some mistakes when he was younger, but he was trying to make a fresh start by learning new skills. While enrolled in a construction trade training program, he met with an attorney from Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. The attorney helped John expunge his criminal record of minor charges, opening new opportunities. “I appreciate it. It helped me a lot to move my career forward,” he said. “I’ve found employment at an electrical company.”

Some of the job training sites focus particularly on young adults. For these clients, the legal services providers have found constant communication and follow-up to be key to successfully resolving issues. Many of these young adults are seeking their first job, but have been unsuccessful at gaining employment due to a legal issue. Civil legal aid helps them start adulthood off on stable footing.

Perhaps the biggest surprise from the 1B4J program to-date has been the significant number of participants with outstanding student loan debt, often from for-profit programs that they never finished. To address this issue, MLSC grantees have partnered with financial counselors who help the participants apply for loan modifications or to have their debt discharged.

Amy Petkovsek, director of training and pro bono at Maryland Legal Aid, sees legal services addressing the last obstacle 1B4J participants need to overcome before gaining employment. “For example, we have clients who are ready to earn their commercial driver’s license, yet have a suspension due to back child support obligations. They’re able to seek modifications of that support and release of their license. These same clients are then employed and able to start paying down the child support arrears for the first time,” she said.

 

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

Adding civil legal services to workforce development allows job training organizations to focus on the professional needs of their clients, confident other personal needs are also being addressed. “Until our collaboration, BTI attempted to address, on our own, numerous issues faced by our participants,” said Kathleen Weiss, executive director of BioTechnical Institute of Maryland, a 1B4J job training organization. “Homeless Persons Representation Project brings deep experience in legal assistance, advocacy, and solutions to the under- and unemployed individuals we serve.”

Not only has 1B4J succeeded in fostering a public-private funding partnership, it has also spurred several MLSC grantees to build relationships with other city and state agencies. With new relationships with the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, the legal services providers are better equipped to serve clients with administrative issues—both through the 1B4J program and through their standard services.

MLSC now hopes to expand the 1B4J model to other areas of the state with additional bank settlement funding. Working with state and local partners, we are identifying potential sites in areas of high need.

 

Ideal for Community Redevelopment

Petkovsek sees the pairing of job training and civil legal aid as a natural fit for community redevelopment. “Too often, the best efforts in job skills training programs resulted in a dead end for clients because a civil legal issue needed to be resolved before paid full-time work could occur. This partnership has solved that dead end,” she said. “When legal services and job training are linked together, job skills become more than a classroom practice—they turn into a regular paycheck for many of our clients.”

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