Pandemics like the novel coronavirus challenge our personal, employment, housing and family rights, and its implications will continue to touch other areas of law after the crisis passes.
“As the pandemic spreads, thousands of Americans will need help – not just with medical issues but also with legal issues including lost jobs, evictions, insurance claims, family emergencies and obtaining government benefits they need to survive,” American Bar Association President Judy Perry Martinez said. “Those who come before our criminal justice system will face additional challenges as jobs are lost, the inability to pay fines and fees escalates and we face a greater risk of detentions.”
Paralegals and other legal professionals can help their clients navigate the legal concerns that surround the pandemic while taking steps to better serve clients during future emergencies.
Pandemics like the novel coronavirus outbreak affect a range of legal sectors. The areas below cover a few common areas in which clients may need assistance from paralegals and other legal professionals as they move through and recover from the outbreak. What is the difference between isolation, quarantine and social distancing?
Workers’ compensation or disability benefits may be available.
This is especially true for people in professions that put them at a higher risk during a crisis. For example, benefits may be available to healthcare workers and essential employees who have a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Employees may have legal recourse if work conditions jeopardize their safety.
The number of people filing for unemployment insurance in the United States soared this spring as the coronavirus forced people out of work.
“From March 15 to April 18, 26.5 million people have probably been laid off or furloughed,” the Washington Post reported in an article on the economy. “The number of jobs lost in that brief span effectively erased all jobs created after the 2008 financial crisis. Jobless figures on this scale haven’t been seen since the Great Depression.”
There are a number of resources available to support people experiencing unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and other emergencies:
More than half of states enacted protections offering rent relief for tenants during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, many renters still faced eviction, and getting emergency assistance was difficult, Time reported in an article on COVID-19.
The following sites offer resources for renters to learn more about their rights during the coronavirus outbreak and in other emergency scenarios:
Criteria for an incarcerated person’s consideration for home confinement included:
Age and vulnerability to COVID-19
Behavior during incarceration
Crime of conviction
Re-entry plan that maximizes public safety and reduces risk
Pandemics like the novel coronavirus not only present health threats to inmates, but they can also present legal challenges and delays. Visitations were suspended at state and federal prisons due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and court operations were also altered, which could cause delays in releases and other legal proceedings.
The COVID-19 outbreak introduced individuals and businesses to a range of new legal situations. These 10 legal terms were applicable to the experiences of businesses and individuals during the pandemic.
Act of God: An extraordinary natural event that could not be foreseen or prevented.
Contact tracing: A disease control measure in which public health workers work with patients who have a confirmed or suspected infectious disease to help them recall everyone with whom they came into contact while they might have been contagious. Public health workers must protect the identity of a patient when they inform their contacts they may have been exposed to the disease, according to the CDC. More information is available on the CDC’s website.
Force majeure: An unforeseeable, insurmountable event that prevents a party from fulfilling the terms of a contract.
Isolation: An action that separates people with a communicable disease from those who are not sick.
Safer-at-home recommendation: A recommendation imposed by some states and municipalities that encourages people to continue to stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of disease. Recommendations vary by jurisdiction, but some rules include prohibiting social gatherings, requiring face masks to be worn in public and requiring shoppers to practice social distancing while visiting essential businesses.
Social distancing: Also known as physical distancing, this practice helps slow the spread of disease by preventing close contact between people. Social distancing guidelines include discouraging large gatherings of people and urging individuals outside the same household to stay at least 6 feet apart from one another.
State of emergency: A declaration that suspends constitutional rights and alters government operations at the city, state or federal level.
The novel coronavirus forced the closure of businesses worldwide. Small and medium business owners may have legal questions related to the effects of states of emergency and shutdowns during pandemics and other crises.
Q: What financial assistance is available for businesses experiencing hardships? How can I access it?
Q: What if I am unable to uphold my responsibilities in a contract?
A: Pandemics may be considered a “force majeure,” an unexpected and overpowering obstacle that may release a party from liability for damages from failure to supply agreed-upon goods or services. Parties can also seek to renegotiate terms of a contract if their circumstances change drastically, though many contracts include clauses with disclaimers about risks of changes in circumstances.
Online communication tools such as Zoom, Skype and the Google Suite can help you stay in touch with clients and co-workers while working from home.
Establish policies to protect confidential information.
Legal professionals and paralegals should take measures to safeguard clients’ confidentiality while working remotely by implementing best practices for document management, electronic communication and accessing networks. Legal professionals should have a separate workspace in their household to protect client confidentiality during calls and conferences.
Make a plan to prioritize urgent work.
Pandemics and other crises can cause court closures and changes to court operations, causing case backlogs and delays. Creating a plan to stay on top of cases that are continuing and expedite those that have been postponed can help legal professionals stay on track as much as possible as emergency situations unfold.
Create a crisis management team and emergency plan for your workplace.
If your place of work does not already have an emergency preparedness plan, assemble a team to address how your office will handle future crises. Plans can include how to continue operations during temporary closures, remote work policies, and additional cleaning and sanitation services in the event of a public health emergency.