Oscar Solórzano believes he is owed more than $9,000 in back unemployment benefits. The Georgia Department of Labor disagrees.
Department officials have twice concluded that Solórzano did not qualify for unemployment benefits after he was fired last year as a machine operator at carpet manufacturer Mohawk Industries Inc. in Dalton, Ga. That would have been the end of the matter had Solórzano not been referred to the Georgia Legal Services Program and attorney Currey Hitchens, who specializes in representing Spanish speakers. “I would have given up,” Solórzano said through an interpreter. “I couldn’t do this by myself.”
Mohawk — Solórzano’s employer for 13 years — argued during an administrative hearing that he because he lacked a current work permit, he didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Solórzano had applied for a renewal of his work permit and had a letter from the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services saying his permit had been approved, but he had yet to receive his card.
The state affirmed the denial of benefits in December, and Hitchens filed a civil suit in state court in February on Solórzano’s behalf, seeking to reverse the state’s decision. For now, Solórzano likes his chances in court. “What they did was not fair,” said the 42-year-old father of three. “I had a permit to keep working at the company. I think I’ll win.”
Phyllis Holmen, executive director of Georgia Legal Services, said Solórzano is one of 771 Spanish speakers and Hispanics who received assistance from the agency in 2010. Representation to Spanish speakers has been a priority since 2003, when the group received its first grant from the Goizueta Foundation to add bilingual attorneys, she said.
“There are very few Spanish-speaking attorneys in the rural areas of the state, which we serve,” said Wendy Glasbrenner, managing attorney for Georgia Legal Services’ Gainesville office. “Most of the attorneys who do speak Spanish handle immigration or criminal cases. That leaves all the other civil cases untapped. I also think our legal system is a lot different than what a lot of Hispanic clients are accustomed to.”
The largest single group of cases Georgia Legal Services handles for Spanish-speaking clients involve health care — usually, securing Medicaid eligibility for children, Holmen said. Its attorneys are legally barred from representing undocumented-immigrant clients, with the exception of those involved in domestic violence or human trafficking cases. Georgia Legal Services attorneys can assist the children of undocumented immigrants, however. In addition, attorneys are frequently called upon to assist with unemployment benefits or food-stamp eligibility. They handle a significant number of domestic violence cases.
Georgia Legal Services has come under fire from some state and federal legislators for its representation of migrant farm workers in suits against local farmers, and the group has filed administrative complaints seeking to compel state agencies to provide services in Spanish. U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month that he supports eliminating Legal Services Corp. funding altogether.
“Their continual frivolous lawsuits and harassment of Georgia farmers only drive up the cost of business on an agriculture industry that is already suffering, increasing the price of food for consumers,” Westmoreland said.
Georgia Legal Services’ efforts have spurred changes at the Georgia Department of Labor and some county agencies, but they have been less successful with the Georgia Department of Human Services, which administers Medicaid, Glasbrenner said. “We have a legal obligation not to discriminate based on language,” Holmen said.
Georgia Legal Services, which operates 12 offices and serves 154 counties outside the Atlanta metropolitan area, received more than $7.5 million in 2011 from the LSC — the group’s largest single source of funding. About one-third of its cases involve domestic violence.
Isabelle Seay, a 29-year-old mother of two from Dalton, Ga., turned to Georgia Legal Services when she left her husband last February after 10 years of marriage.
“He abused me physically, mentally — pretty much anything you can think of,” Seay said of her husband, who is a drug user. “I came to [Georgia Legal Services] on a limb thinking, ‘It can’t hurt to try.’ ”
Within weeks, Hitchens had helped Seay secure a temporary protective order against her husband that granted her sole custody of the children. She and Hitchens are due back in court later this month to ask for a permanent protection order and child support. Seay’s husband recently completed a stint in jail for violating the protection order and stalking her.
“Honestly, I probably would have gone back to him if I didn’t get legal help,” Seay said. “It makes me feel good to know there’s someone out there helping me.”
Karen Sloan can be contacted at email@example.com.