Before law school, Peggy Rodriguez '21 was an hourly employee in the food and beverage industry for 10 years, so she has a deep appreciation for the struggles that frontline workers have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That experience, combined with her legal education and skills, led her to apply for and receive the Essential Worker Fellowship, which begins Sept. 1. The one-year fellowship is funded by Seattle University School of Law's Access to Justice Institute (ATJI), the Unemployment Law Project (ULP), the Latino/a Bar Association of Washington, the Loren Miller Bar Association, and the Asian Bar Association of Washington.
"Peggy was selected because of her excellent legal background and academic excellence at Seattle University School of Law," said John Tirpak, ULP's executive director. "She has direct experience with the employment challenges these essential workers face."
The ULP is a statewide nonprofit law firm established to advise and represent unemployed workers. Rodriguez, who graduated from Seattle U Law in May, came to know more about ULP's mission when an acquaintance asked for help. He was a barber whose shop was forced to close during the pandemic. He wasn't receiving unemployment benefits and couldn't get clear answers about why he had been denied.
With guidance from Professor Lisa Brodoff, her administrative law professor, Rodriguez connected the barber with the staff at ULP, who guided him through the intricacies of unemployment insurance and helped him advocate for himself.
"Two weeks later, he received all his late benefits, and the issue was remedied. He was beyond grateful, and that assistance completely turned things around for him after months of dead ends," she said. "This situation inspired me and illustrated the positive impact ULP has on our community."
As the Essential Worker Fellow, Rodriguez will work directly with food service workers who have been denied unemployment benefits or asked to repay benefits. Her role will include community outreach and direct representation of workers in hearings. Tirpak said the fellowship will focus on low-income communities of color who have been impacted most by the COVID-19 shutdowns.
This is the second year ATJI has partnered with ULP to offer a fellowship specifically aimed at helping workers during the pandemic. The 2020 fellow, Lavena Staten '20, aided agricultural industry workers in Central Washington. The fellowship includes a $60,000 salary, medical benefits, paid holidays, sick/vacation time, and bar dues.
Rodriguez explained that the fellowship aligns with her longstanding interest in labor issues. Before law school, she worked for the New York State Department of Labor, assisting people with unemployment insurance. During law school, she clerked for the Labor and Industries Division of the Attorney General's Office.
"Wages and fair labor standards became an integral part of my work and deepened my understanding and skillset of labor and employment law," she said.