Law Firms Stretched Thin as Coronavirus Cases Climb

Tara LevinLegal IT

The response to the highly contagious COVID-19 strain – which to date has infected approximately 1.8 million people worldwide and killed approximately 116,000, according to the most recent estimates from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine – has left numerous industries scrambling. While some businesses are at a virtual standstill – such as dine-in restaurants, hotels, physical fitness clubs, and elective surgeons – others are as frenetic as ever. Chief among them is health care, as patient admissions have skyrocketed, particularly in certain hot spots of the country. The same is true for the retail segment, as millions of people have descended upon supermarkets and grocery stores, snatching up basic essentials like toiletries and canned goods.

According to ABA Journal, lawyers that specialize in a variety of disciplines – such as corporate, small claims, workers’ compensation, and more – are experiencing significant growth in requests for their services. It’s gotten to the point where they’re working even longer hours than they normally do. Since many law firms have temporarily suspended operations from their offices, many are working from home.

Because so many of recent inquiries have pertained to coronavirus, some law firms have established “task forces,” taking on clients whose needs or inquiries relate to the direct or indirect consequences of the deadly pathogen, which so far has killed over 21,000 people in the U.S. alone, based on the latest data from John Hopkins University & Medicine.

Amy Traub, chairperson for international law firm BakerHostetler’s National Labor and Employment Group, told ABA Journal that her firm’s task force is composed of attorneys who specialize in different aspects of the law. This is designed to provide clients with options, given the virus has adversely impacted people’s lives in many different ways, aside from exclusively employment or physical health.

“There was really an immediate need by our clients for information on how to address in real time these very unusual circumstances,” Traub explained.

Can lawmakers order businesses to close?

In an effort to contain the spread of the disease, health officials have urged individuals to practice “social distancing,” by staying at least six feet away from other people at home, in stores, or even in outdoor settings. Because social distancing is virtually impossible in certain circumstances, many businesses have been forced to close, ordered to do so by local officials. But there’s an ongoing debate about whether lawmakers have that authority; some are calling on attorneys for legal advice to set the record straight.

Marc Scaringi, an attorney based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, recently wrote an opinion column for The Patriot News that states may be overstepping their powers.

“In truth, the governor has no authority to order the closure of all Pennsylvania businesses, whether essential or nonessential,” Scarangi wrote, referring to Gov. Tom Wolf, who called on certain businesses across the state to shut down. “Not only does the [Emergency Management Services] code not apply to disease, the power to close businesses is not even in that law.”

While businesses, as well as attorneys, question the government’s power, clients are also approaching law firms with inquiries about what they as employers can and can’t do. For instance, some wonder if they can order workers infected with the disease to stay at home to avoid spreading to co-workers. Traub said it’s a case-by-case basis, but generally speaking, employers should familiarize themselves with the Family and Medical Leave Act, which in part provides details on sick time and paid time off.

“An employer cannot just sit by idly and watch the world address the coronavirus issues without itself addressing them internally in their workplace,” Traub told ABA Journal.

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