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Legal aid offices operating remotely, reaching out to clients in the age of COVID-19

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Officials expecting a surge of COVID-19 related cases

VirusOne of the first things legal aid agencies do after a disaster is get out into the community and hold clinics for people who need legal help and advise them about their rights, available programs, and benefits.

Until the coronavirus came.

“That model does not work here and figuring out how to reach the people in need, who by the nature of this disaster are isolating themselves — how do we reach them?” said Monica Vigues-Pitan, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami. “This is going to be a challenging time. How we get information out to people is something we’re going to have to work through.”

So far, legal aid organizations have largely sent staff to work at home, something that has been made easier by recent technology upgrades. Some agencies, with many branch offices, were already set up for telecommunications and staff working from home at least part of the time. They are also working to beef up already existing capabilities for helping clients online and via telephone, reaching out through social media, while still finding ways to reach people who do not have access to electronic technology.

Some offices are maintaining a skeleton staff to handle mail and other matters and deal with clients who come by or require some in-person meeting, while maintaining social distancing and other safety measures.

Directors of various legal aid programs held a conference call on March 25 to discuss their status.

“We are up and running and operating and working to reach our client community,” Vigues-Pitan said, with most if not all agencies having staff working from home.

A survey is being conducted to determine which offices are working remotely and which may still have partial staffing of offices, and whether they are serving existing clients or accepting new ones. The legal aid officials also discussed sharing technological capability to promote connections between scattered staffers and meeting needs of clients who are economically affected by the crisis.

There was also strategizing, she said, that if an order is issued in Florida to close nonessential businesses, how to get legal aid offices designated as essential operations, as was done in Virginia.

Gulfcoast Legal Services reported on March 26 that despite closing in-person services, it has received an uptick in phone calls and emails about evictions, some merely voicing concerns about their housing and some with an immediate crisis.

One client, who is disabled and recently had major surgery, received a nonrenewal notice effective the end of March. GLS was able to negotiate an extension.

“While there is never a good time to lose your home, the uptick we’ve seen is of particular concern. This is a time when everyone, including our most vulnerable seniors and single-parent households, requires safe and secure shelter,” said Caryn Rosencrantz, supervising attorney for the GLS Housing Unit.

It’s not like Florida, frequent host to hurricanes, is unfamiliar with emergency response, but, as Leslie Powell-Boudreaux, executive director of Legal Services of North Florida noted, those are usually two or three-day events affecting one part of the state. This has affected all offices, and no one knows for how long.

“The one thing we all keep telling each other is this is all new to us,” she said.

“The social service side of legal aid, which is being out in the community and helping people learn about their legal rights, is now essentially impossible with the federal social-distancing limitations,” Powell-Boudreaux said. “We are working with our community partners, our medical provider partners, our food distribution partners on how we can work to get information out more broadly. That’s an interesting new challenge.”

She added: “We are sort of in a hybrid mode. We are closed to walk-ins…but we have clients who don’t have access to online information and still come by our offices. We have a skeleton crew at each of our offices making sure people get information,” although social distancing and other precautions are taken.

Recent technology upgrades are paying dividends, according to legal aid directors.

“Florida Legal Services has had a remote work policy in place for several years which has made it relatively simple for us to adapt to the current situation. In the past, this policy has enabled us to maintain most operations during disasters such as hurricanes. Our staff is distributed across the state, and many already work a significant part of the time from home or other remote locations,” said FLS Executive Director Christopher Jones. “We utilize cloud-based file drives, case management, and telephone systems that move seamlessly from the office to remote locations.”

“We’ve moved a lot of the use of technology with our online intake and phone intake. Through social media, we are going to be providing to some degree more of community education through virtual tools, but a lot of our clients don’t access those,” Powell-Boudreaux said. As for staff, “Almost all our programs were already cloud-based document and case-management systems, so people can access from home. It’s provided staff flexibility.”

Jones said many of Florida Legal Services operations are continuing, although community-lawyering and immigration and migrant worker programs, which have in-person contact, have been adapted to maintain social distancing.

“Our advocacy operations are, for the most part, continuing without interruption. In some areas, like our statewide domestic violence legal hotline, there is no real change,” he said. “We currently also have a number of specialized statewide intake hotlines for issues like disaster recovery or for specialized populations. We also operate several specialized online intake portals that bring clients directly into our LegalServer online intake where our advocates can evaluate and assist, refer, or electronically transfer their cases to another civil legal aid provider.”

Vigues-Pitan said meeting grant conditions will be an additional challenge. In many instances, a granting agency approves a specific amount for certain types of work, and releases the money as the legal aid work is conducted — like a law firm bills regular clients. That will be harder with lawyers and supporting staff dispersed, she said, and her agency is working with the granting entities to address that.

She expects similar, but more drawn out, requests for legal aid as those following a hurricane.

“After a hurricane, you have three waves.” Vigues-Pitan said.

The first is the immediate aftermath where clients need immediate help with food and shelter needs, working with FEMA, and facing possible evictions. The second wave is the inevitable scams — she said at least one South Florida senior citizen been contacted by someone requesting their Social Security number so the “caller” could assist in getting “benefits” — and dealing with contractors. The third wave is dealing with insurance and other longer-term issues.

The legal aid providers said in the initial days of sheltering at home and social distancing, calls to their offices are down slightly, but, as perhaps demonstrated by the Gulfcoast Legal Services experience, they don’t expect that to last.

“A lot of our existing clients are facing new issues,” Powell-Boudreaux said, and that includes how delays in court proceedings will affect pending eviction, debt, and foreclosure matters. “As April 1 comes around and people [who have been laid off] can’t make their rent payment, or their mortgage payment or their debt payment. That’s going to start a rush of phone calls.”

Powell-Boudreaux and Vigues-Pitan said other actions will create questions, including if Gov. Ron DeSantis seeks a federal disaster emergency declaration (he has not as of the writing of this article) and the passage by Congress [the bill is pending as as this article was posted] of a massive economic stimulus, which is likely to include extended unemployment benefits and other measures.

“I think with passage of the federal legislation and emergency legislation for the state, that opens up avenues for clients getting emergency assistance they need,” Vigues-Pitan said.

Powell-Boudreaux noted, “Plus, there will be more people who are eligible for our services simply because they don’t have an income coming in.”

The COVID-19 problems are also adding to Hurricane Michael recovery difficulties, she said, adding, “We know from our staff in Panama City, there are still tent communities. There is a significant lack of affordable housing there.”

The agencies can continue with lawyers and staff working from home, but there may be other unforeseen effects.

“One challenge will be telephonic hearings with clients who don’t have their own technology,” Powell-Boudreaux said. “If it’s all telephonic…, the courts are losing out on that face-to-face connection that lends credibility.”

While legal aid agencies gear up for the challenges, the agency directors said there will also be higher statewide need for pro bono services from Bar members, and they said their agencies are already coordinating with the opening of the Young Lawyer Division’s emergency hotline.

For now, the agencies have a message for clients, new and existing, and for fellow lawyers: “We want them to know we’re up and running. We are fully operational law firms that are looking at innovative ways to reach our clients,” Vigues-Pitan said.

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