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Tips to help families navigate the COVID-19 crisis

Be careful, be patient, be kind. That was the collective advice offered to lawyers by five legal experts exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected family life.

The panelists in the ABA webinar, “Crisis Management for Families – The Impact of COVID-19,” discussed and shared tips in the areas of domestic relations, workers’ compensation, workers’ rights, immigration, guardianships and powers of attorney. They were:

  • Moderator Caroline Shoenberger, chief executive officer, Shoenberger Public Interest Law Foundation
  • Grace G. Dickler, presiding judge, Domestic Relations Division, Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago
  • Moises Hernandez, immigration attorney, Hernandez & Reynolds LLC
  • Michael W. Massiate, of counsel, DLA Piper
  • Lisa Murphy, staff attorney, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services
  • Richard Pena, president and CEO, Law Offices of Richard Pena P.C.

Massiate, who focuses on labor and employment law, said that as shelter-in-place orders start to relax around the country, employees and employers will need to work together to ensure safety in the workplace. Employees should notify employers of coronavirus symptoms they or a family member may have, and employers should be steady in protecting the workplace.

“There are no rules around this,” Massiate said. “We’re making it up as we go along, but we do know that the way it used to be, it’s going to be different.” He suggested that employees pack patience and flexibility as they return to work.

Massiate also offered an overview of various benefits available for workers. He said sole proprietors can apply for and receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, which could be used for payroll, rent and utilities and has a debt forgiveness component. 

Dickler said the Cook County court system has tried to remain responsible to litigants and attorneys — and accessible to families in crisis during the pandemic. “People just can’t wait … it isn’t like a business dispute … people are living together in a very difficult situation,” she said.

The Cook County court system issued 23 general orders detailing how proceedings would be carried out during the pandemic, but Dickler acknowledged that some must be tweaked to accommodate the stay-at-home mandate. “We really have to be flexible,” she said. “We’re all in a brave new world. None of us have been through this before.”

Dickler said one of the biggest issues the court has had to deal with is increasing the accessibility of self-represented litigants to the courthouse. The challenge is the difficulty in contacting them.

With more cases and mediations now heard remotely because of the pandemic, Dickler said the court provides interpreters online and through Zoom, and the court reporter’s office is available on Zoom. The Chicago Volunteer Legal Clinic and other services also are available to help self-represented litigants.

Shoenberger, a former consumer protection advocate, said that with the legal system in upheaval people should be more careful because of various scams. “If someone wants you to sign a paper relieving them of paying child support, it’s important for people to read what they sign, and no one has to sign everything right away,” she said.

When it comes to emergency planning for families, Murphy advised people to have a plan in place, particularly in three areas:

  • Disability/Illness, which requires a power of attorney (POA)
  • Death, Last Will and Testament
  • Children, guardianship

“The one thing I tell clients, family and friends who ask … is always to get powers of attorney in place,” Murphy said. There are medical powers of attorney and powers of attorney for property documents, although some states combine the form.

Murphy said it’s important to have someone you can trust as your power of attorney. A POA also helps to avoid guardianship or court involvement and provides guidance for family members in a crisis. She said guardianship forms are good to have on file in a difficult situation, such as when someone becomes ill and can no longer care for themselves or a child. States have different options for short-term guardianship — no court is necessary and in most states the form is online.

Hernandez, an immigration lawyer, said what the pandemic is “heightening the anxieties that many of the immigrant families are currently already struggling with given the confusion over immigration laws.”

Hernandez said in times of crisis, immigrant families should have a detailed emergency plan that includes:

  • Current and accurate general information (name, address, phone)
  • Copies of passports
  • Complete and accurate birth certificate information for family members
  • Marriage license
  • Divorce decrees
  • History of any arrests
  • Certified disposition of any criminal case

He encouraged lawyers to educate people about the immigration courts process. Deportation proceedings do not mean automatic removal, he said, adding that many who are summoned before immigration courts qualify for relief. 

Pena focused on personal injuries suffered in the workplace during the pandemic. He advised individuals to:

  • Notify the employer immediately about the injury. Both employees and employers have specific deadlines to meet. And be sure you have proof that you gave notice of the injury.
  • Seek treatment as soon as possible. Ensure the service providers (hospitals, clinics, doctors) accept the employer’s workers’ compensation coverage and keep your medical appointments.
  • Get a lawyer who handles workers’ compensation cases as soon as possible.
  • Do not quit your job. Temporary benefits will likely cease if you quit.
  • Take advantage of available resources. They include job retraining programs, food pantries and rental assistance for injured workers.

Pena said it is very difficult to navigate workers’ compensation issues. One challenge often is overcoming workers’ language barriers. “We need to understand that lawyers are needed now more than ever,” he said. “Our country needs us.”

“Crisis Management for Families – The Impact of COVID-19” was sponsored by the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the ABA Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights & Responsibilities. It is available on demand for free for ABA members. Enjoy unlimited no-cost access to more than 575 widely accredited online programs and webinars. Additional COVID-19 programs are also available for free.

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