The phrase “unprecedented times” was commonly used to describe the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but for Ms. Keenya Bemis, the terms isolating and worrisome are more fitting. As an educator and after-school program leader, the pandemic removed the interpersonal interactions that were the heart of Keenya’s daily life. As a mother, the unpredictability of financial security threatened her ability to provide for her family. Amidst isolation and worry, Keenya managed the burdens of the pandemic, but the summer presented a series of trials too heavy for her to bear alone. Keenya lost her source of income. Although able to receive federal assistance, this assistance initially created more problems than it did solutions. However, the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, through the advocacy of Attorney Anthony Mohen, provided Keenya Bemis the support necessary to ease her worries.
As an educator, Ms. Bemis teaches for the Schenectady City School District ten months a year and spends her summers leading an all-day STEAM camp for the Liberty Partnership Program at Schenectady County Community College. The height of the pandemic forced Keenya to quickly adapt to remote learning, which she explains as very challenging due to the lack of facial interaction because “many students would not turn on their cameras.” When the unparalleled school year came to an end, Keenya learned that Liberty Partnership Program would not be employing her for the summer. Receiving this news worried Keenya greatly. She explains, “We were living on the last paycheck; not knowing how we were going to manage for the next few months was a big issue.”
Without the source of income she depended on, how was Keenya Bemis supposed to survive? Knowing that teachers were not usually eligible for unemployment benefits during the summer months, Ms. Bemis did not plan on applying. However, she received an email from her union explaining that she might be eligible for pandemic unemployment assistance. Keenya applied and was approved for federal assistance. Starting late June of 2020, Keenya claimed benefits for four weeks until she returned to school in July for a few days of professional development. Due to the break in her claim, Ms. Bemis stopped claiming benefits despite being out of work until the end of August.
What was initially a saving grace quickly became a hassling headache. In October of 2020, Ms. Bemis received notices stating she was ineligible for benefits due to having a reasonable assurance of returning to work in the next school year. She was charged with an overpayment of $4,038. Keenya explains that she was again “worried and unsure of how she was going to afford the repayment.” While reviewing the notice, she observed that it mentioned the ability to seek representation and contacted the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, where she received counsel from Senior Attorney Anthony Mohen. Mr. Mohen states that “The experience with Ms. Bemis demonstrates the urgent need for civil legal assistance to help New Yorkers meet basic needs during the pandemic.”
Mr. Mohen did just that. He provided Ms. Bemis with quality legal counsel determining she was indeed eligible for Pandemic Assistance during her summer unemployment. With this information, Ms. Bemis requested a hearing that took place in April of 2021. Mr. Mohen represented Keenya and won! The decision found that Keenya was entitled to collect benefits for her months of unemployment and that there was no overpayment. Not only did Ms. Bemis not owe any money, but as a result of the decision, Ms. Bemis was able to backdate her claim for the final weeks she was without work, receiving an additional $504 in retroactive benefits!
The onset of the deadly coronavirus ravaging globally was enough to worry any of us. Coupling the global mania with financial insecurity and unpredictability increased the worry for Keenya Bemis. Finding a source of vital assistance then being told you must repay it surmounted the worry into a burden too great for Keenya to bear alone. The support of Mr. Mohen was instrumental to Keenya, who notes that “[h]e was very helpful, kept me regularly updated and without his assistance, I would have been very stressed out and unsure of how to deal with this issue.” The assistance of Anthony Mohen and the Legal Aid Society gave Ms. Keenya Bemis the support necessary to ease her worry. Mr. Mohen reminds us that, while “Ms. Bemis was fortunate because she called Legal Aid and had representation in her hearing,” “[f]or every client like Ms. Bemis we serve, there are likely many others who were unable to receive this assistance.”