Helping During a Time of Critical Need

DC Metro Council’s Community Service Agency (CSA) Provides emergency assistance to union families

In 2021, the Community Services Agency of the Metro Washington Council, AFL-CIO will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The emergency assistance fund, administered by the CSA, is nearly as old. A key part of the CSA, the fund helps more than 350 families each year and the CSA has provided more than $1.2 million to support over 4,200 DC-area union families.

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread job loss across the nation and the CSA is working to help Metro Washington area union and community members weather this economic and health crisis. With the help of generous donors to the CSA Emergency Assistance Fund – including unions, partners and allies such as the Greater Washington Community Foundation, United Way National Capital Area, AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, Ullico and the Baltimore DC Building Trades Council as well as individuals who have sacrificed their precious resources for those who are less fortunate – the CSA has been able to help union members pay rent, purchase food and meet other basic needs.

Labor 411 recently spoke with Community Services Agency Executive Director Sonté DuCote.

Labor 411: Can you give us a general idea of what life has been like within your agency since the spread of pandemic?

Sonté DuCote: There has been so much going on and I’m excited about the way the labor community is pulling together to fund. make sure folks are supported during this time. We need to support those who are laid off as a result of COVID-19 and having to apply for unemployment, which we know doesn’t keep people whole. People have to figure out how to bring in additional resources so they can pay their rent and mortgage.

Labor 411: During a non-health crisis period, what would the emergency assistance fund be used for?

SD: It’s often used for people who have had health issues and used up all their leave or by people who have been laid off, or are in arbitration. They’re not working, and they’re waiting for the results of their union representation. We have folks who are going through divorce.

Labor 411: I understand several unions have contributed directly to the fund. So they are helping agencies that help other workers in addition to helping their own members.

SD: We’re a nonprofit and we have the infrastructure to manage the fund specifically for emergency assistance. We have a process we go through which entails referral from the union, intake and we are clear about what we are and are not able to pay. The whole goal of the fund is to try to help people meet basic needs — rent, utilities and food during times of hardship due to no fault of their own. But with COVID-19, our process includes having a conversation to help them maximize emergency assistance funds as well as federal and community-based resources.  resources. So, we’re helping them to think through how they best utilize the $300 emergency assistance, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you’re not employed, emergency assistance can help keep you in your home or even help pay your cell phone on to look for work.

Labor 411: Can you go into a little more detail about how the process works?

SD: The Emergency Assistance Fund is a great tool for members to connect with their local or union rep because they need to request a referral to emergency assistance. Once I get the referral, I call the member and remind her/him that their local union referred them to me. Once hardship is determined we discuss how CSA can help.  The member emails a late bill(s) and after bills are reviewed, CSA sends a check directly to the creditor.  CSA cannot pay credit cards, cable or tax bills.  We also point them to other resources in the community. The CSA is a United Way partner, so the United Way has a 211 emergency line that has information about resources in different communities all around the country. We help them with that or with resources we know of or relationships we have with other organizations.

Part of the value CSA brings to the Metropolitan Washington Council affiliates is our ability to help affiliates support members through a crisis.

Labor 411: What do the numbers look like? How dramatically has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the workforce in the DC metro area?

SD: We serve about 150,000 members at 185 locals, and right now I would say close to 20,000 members have been laid off. UNITE HERE Local 25 hotel workers, UNITE HERE Local 23 airport, contract and stadium workers, SEIU 32BJ and IBT Local 639 cafeteria workers have all been hit hard by COVID’s economic fallout. Another issue to be aware of is the truck stops having closed restrooms and restaurants impacts our IBT truck drivers.  And how about our teachers having to quickly adapt to online learning platforms!  I do not think there is an affiliate that hasn’t been touched by COVID-19.

Labor 411: As catastrophic as this situation is, it sounds like it’s a good time to be part of a union.

SD: COVID-19 caught people off guard, but the labor community is pulling together to support union and non-union workers. In addition to the generous support already mentioned, CSA’s Client Services Coordinator Sylvia Casaro-Dietert developed resources in Spanish and the Metropolitan Washington Council’s Claimant Advocacy Program has helped workers access unemployment.  Because we are reaching unorganized workers, they experience what it means to be organized and what solidarity feels and looks like.

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