This is the second letter in a series from the Executive Director of Ohio Legal Help, Susan Choe. Susan will share with our supporters and the community updates about OhioLegalHelp.org, stories from users and what inspires the Ohio Legal Help team.
As we wrap up the month of March — Women’s History Month — when we celebrate women throughout history and their contributions to society, I’m also thinking about the challenges women still face, many of which intensified during the pandemic and which fuel our efforts to get access to justice for all.
Many women, particularly those of color or those considered low income, are struggling. The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their financial security and their legal health. In fact, many of the social, economic and workplace gains that women have made over the past several decades have been eroded in just one year.
These are the women and Ohio families we have in mind as we update our COVID-19 content and develop new features for Ohio Legal Help. They are at the heart of our user-centered design. They are why we’re excited about updates like our new secure user hub, My OLH , where our users can more easily save and complete complex legal forms at their own pace, even if they lose internet connection or need days or weeks to work on a form.
Women Face Financial, Legal Hardships
Before the pandemic, many women were already struggling with issues like low wages, access to legal help and financial security.
Nearly half of working women in the U.S. have low-paying jobs, such as housekeepers, healthcare aides, childcare workers, and restaurant and fast-food workers. In addition, women make up about two-thirds of the 20 million people in our country who are considered low-wage workers, even though they make up about half of the U.S. workforce.
Additionally, women historically have been the primary caregivers in their families. Study after study shows that women continue to shoulder the majority of household responsibilities, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, even as more of them work outside of the home and contribute to the household income.
Many women are not only working and taking care of their families, but they are also facing legal issues (perhaps brought on by the pandemic or perhaps not). The Legal Services Corporation has found that 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans, many of whom are women, received inadequate or no legal help.
The Pandemic Made Things Worse
When the pandemic hit, it disproportionally affected women, putting millions of them in precarious financial situations. While the pandemic didn’t create the problems, it did exacerbate them.
As the Brookings Institution summed up in a report released last October on the impacts of the pandemic on working women: “COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up.”
When the country went on lockdown, women were more likely to have been furloughed or laid off because so many of them work in retail, childcare, hospitality and other industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Lost jobs, of course, mean lost wages.
In many low-income families, the mom is the primary breadwinner or a significant contributor to the family income. So the decrease in earnings was particularly painful. Families struggled to pay bills, buy food or take care of household necessities. They couldn’t pay their rent or mortgage. Many faced eviction or fell into foreclosure.
Some women left the workforce due to lack of childcare. In fact, one in four women who reported becoming unemployed during the pandemic cited a lack of childcare as the reason. For some women with old criminal records, the pandemic made it even more difficult to find and keep a job.
Ohio Legal Help Breaks Down Barriers
At Ohio Legal Help, our goal has always been equitable justice for all. We use technology and innovation to help all Ohioans understand their legal options, make informed decisions and connect to legal and community resources.
Since we launched in 2019, Ohio Legal Help has offered a wide array of court and legal forms that can be completed on our website. Using our form assistant, Ohio Legal Help users can fill out complex forms from the convenience of their own homes and in many cases using just their cell phones.
While these forms have helped thousands of people, we knew we wanted to keep improving.
Legal forms often take a lot of time and energy to complete, yet many of the people who come to Ohio Legal Help are low-income, self-represented litigants. Time and internet limitations are a reality for them.
As the Legal Services Corporation said in its “Statewide Website Assessment Report for the Justice Community” in 2017 : “Users are likely to access legal aid websites at the library or at home, with limited time or computer literacy skills, or on a mobile phone with small screens and limited bandwidth.”
Our new secure user hub, My OLH, is the latest way we’re tackling these barriers. As we launched My OLH, we thought of the working mom who barely has time to take care of herself, let alone time to sit down for hours to complete a court form.
Using My OLH, that working mom can fill out a form at her own pace, working on just one part of the form at a time if she needs to. She can save her work and come back to it later, knowing it will be securely stored for her, even if she loses internet connection or is inactive for a while.
The My OLH user hub allows working moms and others to find, save and complete court forms on their own time.
Currently, Ohio Legal Help is offering the Divorce without Children Form Assistant and the CDC Eviction Moratorium Declaration on My OLH. By June, we will have additional My OLH forms including domestic violence civil protection orders, debt collection forms and criminal record sealing.
We’re also gathering information from our user feedback surveys because we want to know directly from users how we can continue to best assist them.
Solutions to Problems Beyond the Pandemic
With the vaccine program well underway, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As we continue to open the economy and get back to normal, women will hopefully regain the ground they lost this past year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic will end, the problems women face will not – unless we address them now.
At Ohio Legal Help, we will always design and create new content, forms and website features with women and families in mind.
In a few years, when we’re celebrating Women’s History Month, I’d love to look back at 2021 and say that was the year we not only helped women recover financially from a pandemic, but helped them achieve greater equity, too. In the meantime, we’ll keep working on new innovative ways to break down barriers and improve access to justice for all.