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Law Practice Tips from March 20 VBA Call

On March 20, the VBA hosted a member-wide conference call to discuss how members were balancing the needs of their firms and clients in light of the ever-changing landscape of court closings and social distancing due to COVID-19. Below are highlights of the call.

Please note: The information provided below does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials shown below are for general informational purposes only. This information may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information.  Any links to third-party websites are provided for the convenience of the reader, user or browser; the VBA and its members do not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

The views expressed here are those of the individuals taking part in the call and authors writing in their individual capacities only – not those of their respective employers, the VBA, or committee/task force as a whole. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on these contents are hereby expressly disclaimed. The content on this posting is provided "as is"; no representations are made that the content is error-free.

If Your Office is Considering Telecommuting

  1. Review existing emergency/backup planning documents and update, if needed.
  2. Determine who must be physically present at your legal office and any changes in how to process mail, billing, reception, etc. Maintain social distancing and increase the frequency of sanitizing common areas such as doors and kitchens.
  3. Create a core group of beta testers to work remotely to test the robustness of telecommuting systems.
  4. Provide training on any new systems.
  5. Consider permitting employees to telecommute in "waves," again doing stress tests on existing or new applications as more employees work remotely.
  6. Revisit planning documents to consider further scenarios, such as having no access to the office site.

What Do We Do If An Employee Is Sent Home Sick Or Tests Positive For COVID-19?

Any employee with cough, fever, trouble breathing should be sent home or told to stay at home and be encouraged to see a doctor.

Any employee who tests positive for COVID-19 should inform human resources personnel at the office.

Employers must provide a safe work environment, following CDC safe practices.

As for when to tell who in the office, the employer should tread carefully and err on the side of confidentiality and privacy. 

Employers should use the same common sense they use should an employee have a potential disability.

Health law attorneys on the call said they were not aware of any need for employers to inform personnel about sending someone home who was not feeling well or might be suspected of being sick. Employers should be careful to avoid seeming to accuse an untested employee of having the virus with no proof. "Don't do it prematurely. Notification must happen at the right time."

EEOC will not impinge on employers for taking employee temperatures to ensure a workplace free from workers with fevers.  

Employers may wish to review this EEOC document.

Local and state health departments will investigate any contacts a patient with COVID-19 has had. These health departments will determine whether and when to provide any notification.

What if our landlord has demanded to know if anyone using the building is sick?

Employers should inform the landlord only upon the guidance of the health departments. "I'll tell you when I am permitted to tell you."


What Are Law Firms Doing On The Financial Front?

Litigators and appellate practitioners, for instance, are affected by the judicial emergency temporarily halting trials in Virginia courts.

Other attorneys are reporting that business is steady as clients need their help to handle the rapidly changing environment.

A couple practitioners in law firms affected by slowing work said they are anticipating two to four months of business disruption and acting accordingly.

Some have furloughed staff, reduced work hours or are contemplating reductions in force. Some have or will consider reducing attorney pay to cover office expenses. They're looking at money in the bank as well as lines of credit and business loans.


Is There A Safety Net For Affected Employees?

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act was approved this week. It addresses paid sick leave, free testing and expanded unemployment benefits. It was H.R. 6201.

Also this past week in Virginia, Gov. Northam approved changes in unemployment benefits for affected workers, such as no waiting period, enhanced eligibility and fewer restrictions. Frequently asked questions from workers and answers are provided.


What Suggestions Do You Have For Interacting With Clients Remotely?

Several people on the call said they were using Zoom, a paid service. Google Hangouts is free, at least for now, someone reported. Others said they were using BlueJeans, FaceTime or Skype.


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