Amy Hirsch oral history, 2016

Longtime senior attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. Worked on state and federal litigation and policy advocacy focused on welfare and its interactions with family and criminal law.

Oral history details

Storyteller: Amy Hirsch
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: Apr 26, 2016
Where relates to: Florida and Pennsylvania
Topics: Child custody, Child support, Civil legal aid: General, Domestic violence, Family law, Health, Language access, Medicaid, Poverty law, and Welfare
Law type: Civil
Collection: CNEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video): http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/353
Length: 0:52:40

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Amy Hirsch
Conducted by Alan Houseman
April 26, 2016

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Amy Hirsch. She is being interviewed by Alan Houseman. The date is April 26, 2016. We are at the Community Legal Services Offices in Philadelphia. Amy, let’s begin by telling us where you grew up, where you went to law school, where you did some post-grad work, undergrad, post-grad, law school. A brief overview of your biography, and then we’ll come back and focus on more subsequent things.

Amy Hirsch:
Sure. I grew up in New York City, in Queens. I went to college at Oberlin, which was great. I worked for a civil rights organization in Virginia and then I went to grad school in New York. Then I decided I did really want to be a lawyer. I’d actually applied to law school from college and had decided not to go at that point. Then I went to law school in Boston at Harvard. Then I started my career in legal services.

Alan Houseman:
Where have you been in legal services?

Amy Hirsch:
My first job was at Jacksonville Legal Aid in Jacksonville, Florida. I worked there from 1979 to 1984. It was-

Alan Houseman:
Tell me, did you overlap with Mark Greenberg?

Amy Hirsch:
… yes. Actually, Mark and I were friends in law school. He graduated a year ahead of me and when I was job hunting it was a point where there was a lot of expansion money in the South. So there were jobs in the South. I had worked in the South before and thought that was really politically important to do work in the South. Mark went to Jacksonville and he and Paul Doyle, who was then the director, recruited me. So I was there for five years. I feel like I had fabulous training there. I had lots of opportunity to learn from really good people. But I was a fish out of water. I really, at some point, decided I needed to get back to the North for personal reasons. That was when I got the job at CLS and moved up here. I’ve been at CLS since 1984.

Alan Houseman:
Have you done any teaching? Adjunct teaching, or I can’t remember?

Amy Hirsch:
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of adjunct teaching, actually, at different points. I started with a course at the University of North Florida when I was working in Jacksonville. Then after I moved up here I taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, initially an appellate advocacy course. Then I developed a welfare law course which they had not had, I think, since Ed Sparer had taught it. After his death there was a gap of some years and I proposed it to them and taught it for a number of years. I also, as an adjunct, taught welfare law at the Penn School of Social Work and then also at the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Research. That was a source of great pleasure for a while.

Alan Houseman:
What factors influenced you to go into legal aid? I understand why you moved to Jacksonville, but what factors influenced you to think about legal aid?

Amy Hirsch:
I went to law school with the express purpose of working in legal aid. I was particularly interested in women’s issues. I had worked for a civil rights group as an organizer in southern Virginia, and I was a terrible organizer. I was very committed to the work but I had a really hard time just like knocking on people’s doors and talking to strangers and trying to convince them to do stuff. So that made it clear to me that my skills would be better used as a lawyer. When I thought about legal work that I wanted to do, I had been active in the women’s movement. I was very committed to doing women’s right’s issues, and I was very interested in poverty issues and poor women’s issues in particular. I went to law school with that intent. I was lucky that at the time that I was in law school Gary Bellow was teaching at Harvard and I connected with him. There was a small group of us in my graduating class who were committed to doing this work. Mark was a year ahead. There was me, there was Bridget Arimond, who was in Chicago, Brad Bridge who’s been with the Defender Association, Dveera Segal who was with legal services in the suburbs here for quite a while and has been teaching at Villanova, and a handful of other folks.

Alan Houseman:
While you were in Jacksonville, what would you say was some of your most important work?

Amy Hirsch:
A couple of things, I think. One was that I did a lot of work with the battered women shelter in Jacksonville, and on domestic violence issues. The first piece of legislative advocacy I ever did was when I was in Jacksonville trying to change the state custody statute, which had been amended to require joint custody as the default in all cases with no exceptions. I worked on getting that statute amended to take into account domestic violence and some other situations and other factors that a judge could consider. That was really important to me because I think people often think of family law as not being an area where there’s systemic advocacy or impact work. When people talk about family law they more often talk about individual cases. I did that.

Amy Hirsch:
I also brought a case, challenging on a statewide basis, the state’s differential treatment of women who were seeking help from the child support enforcement program. Actually, in the federal statute, there’s a provision that says there’s federal funding for child support enforcement, and that those services are to be provided to folks who were getting what was then AFDC as a way of recovering money for the state, but also to individuals who were not otherwise eligible. Which meant low income folks who needed child support and who couldn’t afford an attorney. What Florida did was they had a two track system. They had a whole bunch of staff working on cases for families getting AFDC in order to reimburse the state, and very few staff taking cases for individuals who weren’t on welfare, and very long waiting lists. So we challenged that waiting list.

Amy Hirsch:
Again, just it felt really important to me to think about family law in a systemic kind of way. The issues came directly out of individuals who we had walked in the door. We had women walk in the door who needed support and who couldn’t get help through the state program because they were not receiving cash assistance. Then, working with Mark, who was doing public benefit stuff, I did a fair amount of health and welfare stuff. Working with Mark and Ann [Swerlich?] who’s now at Florida Legal Services. That was great as well.

Alan Houseman:
Well let’s focus a bit on your work at Community Legal Services. You’ve worked in a couple of areas here. we just talked a little bit about child support, so why don’t we start with that? talk a little bit about that work and what you’re trying to accomplish and some of the things you’ve achieved, and whatever else you want to say.

Amy Hirsch:
I’ve put a lot of energy into the intersection of child support in the welfare system over the years. Some of it through litigation, some through legislative advocacy, some through policy advocacy with the state administrative agency, and focused really on two different pieces. One piece was the issue of services. Just as in Florida, there was this issue of families who weren’t getting welfare, not getting access to services, when I moved here. There was an issue that Deborah Harris, who is somebody I think you really should interview, had started work on, which was families who were getting child support enforcement services because they were getting cash assistance. When they stopped getting cash assistance the state was stealing their money. The state was continuing to take the child support that should be going to the families. Deborah and I, together, did a class action called Bennett, that was the first of its type in the country.

Amy Hirsch:
Since then there have been a number in other states where we went into federal district court on behalf of a class and said, when families stop getting welfare you have to reassign the support back to them. It was a pattern and practice case. We really got very deep into the weeds about what exactly went wrong in the exchange of data, which at that point in the 1980s was a paper exchange. One of the things we pushed for in our settlement agreement was the development of a computerized system for data matching to get the support reassigned. That resulted in literally millions of dollars being refunded to families in Philadelphia whose support had been wrongfully taken by the state.

Amy Hirsch:
We then followed that up a number of years later with a case that I did with Pam Walz here, about the interstate unit at Philadelphia Family Court, which was dramatically under-staffed and under-resourced. I hate to say they were doing a poor job because they were doing their best, but they had no resources. So for cases where the support payor lived in another county or in another state, the unit at Family Court whose job it was to collect child support in that context did not have long distance telephone lines, they didn’t have a Xerox machine, they didn’t have personal computers. This was in the 1990s. We had a couple of clients again who literally walked in the door of our office in North Philly. I should say when I started at CLS I worked in West Philly in a neighborhood office. Since 1990 I’ve been in North Philly.

Amy Hirsch:
We had two different women who walked in the door within the space of less than a month who had been trying to collect support without success. It turned out that the support was being paid but had not been properly processed to get it transferred so that they would actually receive it. We discovered through the process of discovery this morass where women would come in. They would do the child support interview. The staff would type 12 different pages on carbon sets. I describe this to law students now and they don’t know what a carbon set is. The staff would type 12 different pages on carbon sets. The women would sign it, they’d notarize the signatures. They would think they’d filed for support but they were scheduled for interviews back to back throughout the day. There was no time in their workday to snap the carbons, collate the papers, and actually mail them to the other county or state which had to initiate the support action. They would pile them in the corner and every six months they would come in on a weekend and work all weekend getting the petitions actually out. That six months of support was lost forever because the case had not actually been initiated until the petition was received in the court with jurisdiction over the payor.

Amy Hirsch:
We got a bunch of resources moved into that unit so that they could actually process cases. We got them computers, we got them Xerox machines, we got them long distance phone lines, we got them an interstate telephone directory so that they could effectively process. It was sort of a three-ring circus in federal court because we sued the state which had the oversight responsibility, and the state sued Philadelphia Family Court. So it was quite a complicated set of negotiations.

Amy Hirsch:
That work was really about services. Parallel to that, when families were getting cash assistance, they would get to keep only a very small piece of the support that was paid for them, the child support pass through. Starting in 1984 that amount was a maximum of $50 per family per month. The rest of the support was taken for the state and federal governments to reimburse the welfare. In the 1990s, as part of the whole welfare reform piece, the requirement that the state do that got lifted by federal law and that became optional for the state. Prior to that change in federal law, the Pennsylvania Welfare Department tried to get a bill through our state legislature to eliminate the child support pass through in anticipation of the change in federal law. With a colleague at the Women’s Law Project, Sue Frietsche, we did a very successful legislative campaign to save the child support pass through. We did it by taking women who needed that support up to Harrisburg, and having them talk to legislators.

Amy Hirsch:
Because the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature were controlled by the Republican party, at that point we had to develop Republican women legislators as allies on it. They were the ones who stood up to their governor and up to their leadership in both houses and successfully got a provision that said that the pass through could only be lifted in accordance with federal law. Then the federal law changed and we brought a lawsuit in which we successfully argued in state court that what was meant by that statute was the federal law as it was in place at the time of passage, which required the support pass through. There were three different legislative attempts by the state administration to undo the child support pass through. We got an injunction in the state appellate court, we got that injunction reinstated in the state supreme court. We won in the legislature three different times on this issue.

Amy Hirsch:
By the end of it, the governor and all of the leadership were taking credit for the child support pass through. It became Mom and apple pie. We developed this set of relationships with women legislators on both sides of the aisle who really took a great deal of pride and ownership at having done something of great importance for low income women. Those relationships then became very important in other legislative battles. So I felt like it was tremendously useful process. I mean both on the specific issue and on getting women in the legislature on both sides of the aisle to think about support.

Amy Hirsch:
By the end of that fight, by the last time it went around in the legislature, we also had tremendous support from male legislators who talked very movingly, with some help on talking points, about what it meant to them to support their kids and how important it was for low income kids to be able to say my dad pays support, my dad bought me these shoes. My dad did this for me. That helped us shift … There’s so much stigma around getting welfare. there’s so much contempt for families that have gotten welfare or need welfare. It felt like it was really important at every opportunity that we have to make legislators see low income parents and kids as being no different from their own families and from other parents and kids that they interact with. That felt really important to me.

Amy Hirsch:
We later did a very successful legislative campaign that made Pennsylvania the only state in the country that took all of the options that are available under federal law to increase the share of child support that goes to low income families as opposed to being recouped by the states and the feds.

Amy Hirsch:
Our theme on all of this, our sort of catchphrase, was child support is for children. At one point in the litigation, the state actually filed a brief with a sub-head that said plaintiffs wrongly assert child support is for children; rather the purpose of child support is to reimburse the state. It just felt very symbolic that that was … I should say also, the name of the child support pass through litigation, the name of the case, is Success Against All Odds versus Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Which is my all time favorite case name. We had both individual clients and a client organization, Success Against All Odds from central Pennsylvania. We made a very conscious choice as to how the case was titled.

Alan Houseman:
That’s a great one. Well, in some circles in legal aid, as you know, child support work was sort of looked down. that’s not been true here, I don’t think. At least certainly it’s not been true with your world. You’ve talked about this, but why is child support work important?

Amy Hirsch:
I think child support work is incredibly important because for low income families, for women and kids, it’s a hugely important source of income. Getting that income to the families rather than to the state is incredibly important to me. There are also enormous issues around problems for low income payors of child support. Peter Zurflieh from the Community Justice Project in Harrisburg, and I have done a lot of work over the years to try and get better arrears management in Pennsylvania. To try and get the child support system to be more focused on what’s good for low income families and the needs of the kids, and not to put greater stress onto low income fathers who are coming out of prison, to low income parents who have kids in foster care, to make it possible for people to value relationships with kids that aren’t purely monetary.

Amy Hirsch:
I think the child support work has to be done in a very nuanced way. I feel like there has been a lack of respect at many points in legal services more broadly about family law. That in part I think that developed, you know the history much better than I do, but I think in part that developed because I think a lot of the old legal aid programs did almost nothing but family law and there was a desire to broaden the scope and do a lot of systemic impact work and people didn’t think of family law necessarily in those terms. But I also think that there’s a long history of sexism in the U.S. There’s a long history of oppression of women. There’s a long history of not taking women’s needs as seriously as men’s needs in many different contexts. I think that there’s a piece of that that has colored some of the approach to family law issues over the years in legal aid. I wish that weren’t true, but we’re in a context.

Alan Houseman:
That’s fascinating. I want to talk a little bit about some of your other work. You’ve done a lot of work in the health arena. talk a little bit about that work and some of the highlights of that work, or however you want to phrase it.

Amy Hirsch:
I’ve done a lot of work on Medicaid over the years, and also a fair amount of work on drug and alcohol addiction and access to treatment and access to benefits. I think I’d like to mention two things connected to health if I could. The first is a great legislative campaign that we did very successfully in Pennsylvania around the lifetime ban on benefits. One of the lesser known pieces of the federal welfare reform statute from 1996 was a provision that says that if you have a felony drug conviction you are banned for life from getting food stamps or TANF unless your state affirmatively passes legislation to do something different.

Amy Hirsch:
I went back and checked the congressional record, there was two minutes of debate in Congress. Literally two minutes. One minute pro, one minute against and that was it. There was, at the time that this happened, really no literature about low income women and addictions and benefits and felony drug convictions. There was a literature about addiction in women in pregnancy, but nobody was talking about this in the context of benefits. I realized that we needed a lot more information about who’s actually affected if we were going to convince legislators to provide benefits to individuals with felony drug convictions. Because it made a great soundbite: No food stamps for drug felons. But who did it actually affect? When you looked at it carefully, the people it affected, I mean in order to get TANF you have to either be pregnant of the custodial parent of a young kid. Over 90% of the adults on TANF are women. If you look at food stamps, because of the various rules about eligibility, again, it differentially affected women.

Amy Hirsch:
If you start to dig into the stories of women with addictions, which is how women get felony drug convictions, the story is that they were, by and large, physically and sexually abused, often as kids. In the absence of other resources for dealing with the pain of that abuse they self-medicated. As they self-medicated they got into situations with a downward spiral, often with self-medicating in the context of abusive relationships and drug usage, trading sex for drugs, and often being battered. Where you come out then is with a felony drug conviction. Right the point at which you then have the possibility of getting treatment and trying to put your life back together you’re banned for the rest of your life.

Amy Hirsch:
I took a year off from CLS, I got a fellowship from the Open Society Institute to do research. I did a bunch of interviews of women, but also of probation officers and police officers and district attorneys and public health professionals to get comprehensive kind of picture. CLAS very kindly published the report and then Sue Frietsche from the Women’s Law Project and I, and some folks from women’s drug and alcohol treatment programs, spent several years taking women up to Harrisburg. The same republican state legislators, in particular a state senator who was a former prosecutor, Jane Earl, took this on as an issue. We had a bipartisan set of bills with both Republican and Democratic sponsors. We got the ban lifted in Pennsylvania and also did a lot of pushing to get other organizations nationally focused on it. There’s been a whole lot of work in other states and nationally by the Legal Action Center, by the Sentencing Project, by the Rebecca Project. There have been a lot of groups who’ve picked up that issue and run with it in other parts in the country and nationally. I feel very proud of that.

Amy Hirsch:
The other thing, more recently CLS did a huge amount of work, much of it by many of my younger colleagues on Medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania. We got a really good Medicaid expansion. Because the outgoing prior administration sought to impose tremendous cuts on Medicaid under the guise of doing expansion, we did three different class actions. One of those three is what I want to talk about because it’s the one I took the lead on. That was a case called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania versus Mackereth. Pennsylvania had a program called Select Plan that provided contraception and family planning services for women who were over income for our prior Medicaid program, which had a very low income upper limit at about 33% of the federal poverty line. For women who were above that, what you could get was family planning services. That was important, but very limited. The outgoing prior administration in Pennsylvania recognized that these women were probably eligible for full Medicaid, but refused to move them to full Medicaid when they did Medicaid expansion. They said no, we want them to individually apply because how do we know if they want full coverage. Maybe they don’t want access to healthcare. We first went back and forth for quite a while, trying to convince them that since all of them had applied for Medicaid, which was how they had gotten Select Plan, probably they wanted access to healthcare. The welfare department had all of the information it needed in order to just determine eligibility and move them.

Amy Hirsch:
We ended up having to file a class action. It settled. We did it jointly with the Women’s Law Project, again with Sue Frietsche. It settled with the transfer of about 59,000 women onto full Medicaid and the referral of another 14,000 or 15,000 to the federal marketplace before the deadline. They eventually had agreed that yes, they would look at individuals for eligibility, but they were going to do it over an extended period, which both would have deprived women who were eligible for full Medicaid of that coverage for many months, and would also have meant that women who were over income for Medicaid expansion but eligible for subsidized Obamacare would not have been referred to the marketplace until after the …

Alan Houseman:
The deadline.

Amy Hirsch:
The deadline. On the one hand it felt ridiculous that we had to bring this case. On the other hand it felt very satisfying to get that done and to get it done quickly so that women actually got the benefits that they needed.

Alan Houseman:
There’s two other areas I want to briefly cover of your work. Language access, which I haven’t heard about from anybody else, and then welfare. But let’s talk about language access.

Amy Hirsch:
Language access is a huge issue. In Philadelphia we have a large and very varied immigrant population, so at CLS, I mean we have not only many Spanish-speaking clients but Vietnamese, Cambodian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish. A number of African languages. Mandarin, Fukienese, Fujianese, Cantonese, Arabic speakers. I think I mentioned Indonesian. There are many immigrant communities. Title Six of the federal civil rights laws requires nondiscrimination based on national origin, which the Supreme Court has said includes language. So the first language access advocacy I did was in the mid 1980s, shortly after I got to CLS, when we were approached by folks from both the Vietnamese and Cambodian communities in Philadelphia. They were having difficulty accessing benefits from the welfare department. We brought an administrative Title Six complaint with the Department of Agriculture because of needing access to food stamps and USDA oversaw agriculture. As a result, DPW hired its first Vietnamese and Cambodian-speaking case workers. I should say they then immediately assigned them to non-Cambodian and Vietnamese caseloads and we had to go back and do some more advocacy to get people caseworkers who spoke their language where possible.

Amy Hirsch:
CLS has had since the late 1990s a language access project, which has been staffed by different attorneys. The model that we’ve had is that we’ve had one or two attorneys who were particularly focused on language access but who worked with advocates in each of our substantive units. I have never been in the language access project, but I have worked with the language access project on public benefits issues and there have been recurring issues with the Pennsylvania Welfare Department. There was that first case in the mid 1980s. Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s we did a series of civil rights complaints to the Office for Civil Rights of the federal Department of Health and Human Services about language access issues at the welfare offices in Philadelphia and in the Welfare-to-Work program in Philadelphia. As a result of those complaints we got a bunch of improvement around access to interpretation and translation.

Amy Hirsch:
But we’ve had to go back again. We have another set of complaints that are currently pending. It’s one of those areas where it feels like deja vu all over again. You fight and fight and fight, you make some progress, and then there’s a couple steps backwards. Then you go back in and you fight and fight and you make some more progress, but there are still issues. It’s been an area in which I feel like CLS’ strengths have really been important because we’re a large field program. We do a high volume of individual cases, so we know in very nitty gritty terms what happens when somebody goes into the welfare office. We also do systemic work so we’re always thinking about what’s the connection between what happens when somebody walks in the door or tries to call them on the phone and what’s the bigger picture and what can we push for.

Amy Hirsch:
One of the things we’re currently struggling with the welfare department over is a number of years ago we succeeded in getting them to have in the outgoing message at their call center, a set of choices for people speaking the five most common languages. it wasn’t even just press one for English, press two for Spanish, but there was a number you could press for Russian and for Vietnamese and Cambodian and Chinese. That all disappeared when they upgraded their phone system. So for years we’ve been fighting to get that back. We’ve gotten it back for Spanish. But for all of the welfare offices, when they rerecorded it, they said press two for Spanish in English, it doesn’t say it in Spanish. We have been trying to get them to rerecord it in Spanish. You would think that would be a simple task and it has taken massive amounts of advocacy over several administrations. It is now, we are told, about to happen by the middle of May. Although we’ve been told it was about to happen at various other points.

Amy Hirsch:
Part of what we do when we do this kind of advocacy is we call the numbers and we hear what does the outgoing message say. So then we go to a meeting at the welfare department. We’re like, it still says it in English and they say, oh no, we had that fixed. We say, we’ll the dial the number, listen to it. It’s in English. They’re like, oh, we have to get that fixed. I recognize it’s a complicated department with many moving pieces. It’s not like just rerecording something on my outgoing voicemail. But I feel like the combination of that kind of nitty gritty what actually happens when you walk into the office…. In the early 1990s we got them to get dual handset telephones for the welfare offices so that when they were calling language line they didn’t have to pass the handset back and forth or shout into a speakerphone and have no privacy. But then we found out that they weren’t using them. Then we did more digging and it turns out that they had gotten one for each office and it was locked in a closet and only the office manager had the key to unlock the closet to bring out the phone. Caseworkers weren’t using it because they had to go to the office manager and get the key and get the phone. We were like, no, you have to have it at the front desk and you have to have it in the interview rooms and you have to have more than one. You can’t make people go through their manager to get the key to get the phone to make it work.

Amy Hirsch:
I feel like if you’re at 10,000 feet you don’t know anything beyond you’ve said well you have to provide interpretation and translation. Maybe oh good, they’re going to get dual handset phones. But that if you don’t have field programs handling individual cases, going to the welfare office with people, talking to clients about what happened when they called, making the phone calls together, you don’t know what the actual barriers are to implementation.

Alan Houseman:
Let’s finish up. You’ve talked a little bit about it. You’ve done work in the welfare area too. What would you say about that?

Amy Hirsch:
I would say that it is simultaneously extremely satisfying and extremely frustrating work because you feel like you are beating your head against the wall over and over and over on issues. At the same time, we’ve been able to get a lot of systemic change. The first number of years when I was doing welfare law, most of the cases I was bringing were challenges to particular regulations. Either statutory claims that regs violated statutes or constitutional claims that statutes violated the Constitution. We were getting big changes, many of them defensive. There were efforts at cutting benefits and we were successfully fighting back in various ways. But in more recent years, we’ve been more focused on the pattern and practice stuff of what’s happening in the welfare offices as they’ve been “hollowed out”, is the phrase I’ve heard academics use, for the erosion of support for governmental infrastructure.

Amy Hirsch:
At the same time, for example, that you had the Great Recession and a tremendous increase in demand and need, so the Medicaid caseload went way up, the food stamp caseload went way up, the number of caseworkers went way down as the state legislature was starving the welfare system just as Congress has starved the Social Security system. So you had the sort of perfect storm where no one could succeed in getting benefits in an effective way because you couldn’t reach them on the phone. When you went into the office there were huge lines and enormous waits. They couldn’t successfully process the volume of paper that was being required of folks. You couldn’t get benefits in Philadelphia not because of some statutory change or some new regulation, but because we had this operations crisis where you could not get access to the welfare office in a meaningful way.

Amy Hirsch:
So we worked with great pro bono counsel from Dechert and threatened litigation with a set of both statutory and constitutional claims. We got some really important shifts in how things were being processed at the Philadelphia welfare office. They had this huge backlog of paper. They went to an electronic case file system. But they were making clients bring in these massive piles of paper which then had to be scanned. Then it turns out, after they’re scanned they have to be attached to a file. They were being scanned into what caseworkers referred to as they electronic dumpster because there was no staff to attach them to files. Then after you attach it to the file, you actually have to take action on it. You have to do something with it. People were losing benefits having timely turned in everything that was required of them because no one had processed the paperwork before a deadline and their benefits were being cut off. People who were applying were being denied for not turning paperwork in when they had turned it in but it hadn’t been processed.

Amy Hirsch:
As a result of that, they’ve shifted a bunch of staff. You can now actually get through to the customer service center on the phone lines. It used to be these huge wait times and long queues and people getting disconnected. for low income folks who have limited minutes on a cellphone. I can sit at my desk and leave my phone on hold and do other work. For someone who’s on a break from a low wage job and they don’t have a lot of time and they don’t have a lot of minutes, they can’t sit with a cellphone for 15 or 20 minutes hoping to get through and call back. I would just sit at my desk and hit redial over and over and over. They didn’t have that luxury. You can now get access on the phones. We’ve done a lot of work to streamline the verification that’s required to minimize how much paper’s coming in and to get the welfare department to rely more heavily on electronic data sources and on their own records from prior interactions with the same individuals.

Amy Hirsch:
We’ve gotten some changes in the system for food stamp interviews so that people can call in and don’t have to sit and wait by the phone for a call that never comes. That’s had a direct impact on our intake because we had gone from seeing four or five, maybe six or seven people a day coming into our North Philly office looking for help with welfare benefits. It spiked to 14, 15 a day. We could not possibly serve that volume with the staff that we have. We’re now back down to the volume we were at. There’s now a set of protections in place before cases wrongfully get terminated where paperwork has been submitted. That’s current and ongoing work.

Alan Houseman:
That’s great.

Amy Hirsch:
Can I mention one other thing?

Alan Houseman:
Sure.

Amy Hirsch:
Which doesn’t appear on my resume, which is our North Philadelphia building. I’m the managing attorney for our North Philly office and we were in a hell hole. We were in a building that we rented for many years that had been a Horn & Hardart cafeteria, an old storefront with like a rabbit warren of offices. We had 35 to 40 staff there and three people had windows. The entire rest of the staff there were no windows. One of my jobs as managing attorney was to go out on the roof. It was a flat roof. It wasn’t dangerous. I had to go out on the roof every Friday afternoon with a pole and poke the drain. Because if you didn’t keep clearing the drain it would flood. If it rained over the weekend and there was nobody there to poke the drain we had floods. We had electrical fires, we had rats, we had other vermin. We had repeated problems with the plumbing. I mean it was a disaster.

Amy Hirsch:
CLS did a capital campaign. We got money from the state. We got money from a federal program for new market tax credits for development in underserved areas. We got fabulous donations from large law firms and from individuals, including almost every individual on staff in both of our offices and we built a beautiful building. It’s LEED gold certified. It’s got light, it’s got air. It’s got a courtyard with trees and tables and chairs where our clients can wait in nice weather if they want to sit in the courtyard. We have a great conference room with windows, which you never see conference rooms with windows, which is available for community groups for meetings. Over and over again we’ve had clients just walk in and their jaws drop because it’s a beautiful space and they are not used to being served in beautiful spaces.

Amy Hirsch:
Our work has always been really high quality but our space did not treat our clients with the respect that they deserved, or our staff. We now have this fabulous building. I am really proud of the work I did on that, and it’s not my substantive work, but it feels like it’s made this huge substantive difference to people in the North Philly neighborhood that we are in and that we’re committed to staying in, and to our clients. The reaction in the community, people have been incredibly supportive during the building process. We had no vandalism. People would stop me on the street and say you’ve dug the basement and I see the second story’s going up. It just was fabulous.

Alan Houseman:
Well this has been terrific and I really enjoyed it. it’s good to see you again.

Amy Hirsch:
It’s good to see you. I’m so glad you’re doing this project.

Alan Houseman:
Thanks a lot.


END