Production by ALI and the Bolch Judicial Institute. Music is ‘Sunset’ by Kai Engel, from the Free Music Archive, CC BY.
Ronald Flagg, president of the Legal Services Corporation
Lynn Jennings, vice president of the Legal Services Corporation
Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC
Laura Tuggle, executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services
Yvonne Mariajimenez, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County
- Host David F. Levi, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute and president of the American Law Institute, interviews leaders from some of the country’s largest legal aid agencies to learn how they are continuing to provide legal services during the pandemic.
- Legal aid agencies say the public health crisis had exacerbated the already significant legal needs of their clients; created budget shortfalls nationwide that are reducing funding for legal services at a time when needs are higher than ever; and forced legal aid staff to work remotely with clients who often do not have access to the technology needed to facilitate remote meetings.
- Panelists ask lawyers around the country to volunteer with local aid agencies and to help build public awareness of the critical need for civil legal aid.
Listen to the podcast
Visit ali.org for more info and to subscribe to the Reasonably Speaking podcast.
David Levi: Hello, and welcome to Coping with COVID, a podcast and video series jointly produced by the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School and the American Law Institute. This series examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal system. I’m David Levi, president of the American Law Institute and director of the Bolch Judicial Institute.
With me today are several accomplished lawyers who lead legal services organizations and are working very hard right now to assist people with critical legal needs. Our country has long struggled to meet the needs of people who can’t afford legal services. The current crisis has exacerbated those needs but may also provide a push and a path toward long term improvements in our system. Welcome and thank you to our panelists today.
Ronald Flagg is president of the Legal Services Corporation and a former partner at Sidley Austin. Lynn Jennings is the Legal Services Corporation’s vice president for grants management. She is responsible for the corporation’s day to day programmatic operations and its annual grant-making process. Laura Tuggle is Executive Director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services; the state’s largest non-profit civil legal services provider. She managed the organization’s housing law unit for five years after hurricane Katrina. Raun Rasmussen is the Executive Director of Legal Services NYC. In his 30 years of legal aid work he helped create one of the country’s first foreclosure prevention projects and developed the Childcare Network Support Project. Yvonne Mariajimenez is Executive Director at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. After the 2008 financial crisis, her efforts to address foreclosures in poor neighborhoods in Southern California resulted in the passage of the California Homeowner’s Bill of Rights.
Thank you all for joining me during such a challenging time. Ron, let’s start with you. You have this big responsibility now. Please give us, and you know what’s going on across the nation with all the grantees of Legal Services Corporation. How is the coronavirus affecting legal aid programs around the country and the clients that these organizations serve?
Ronald Flagg: Well, thanks David. Our three colleagues Laura, Yvonne and Raun normally face great challenges in trying to meet enormous legal needs with too few resources. These challenges have only gotten much worse. They’re really facing a triple whammy. First, they are seeing a tremendous spike in the need for their services and a spike that’s only gonna grow greater. The immediate needs are caused by massive unemployment. We’ve already seen in the last three weeks, 16 million new unemployment filings, we’re gonna undoubtedly see many more posted by the Department of Labor tomorrow.
This is coupled with the shelter-in-place orders throughout the country and between the two of those, they’re causing a number of things. First, we’re really seeing an awful spike in domestic violence claims. I just read an article today in the Kansas City Star showing a 22% increase in the domestic violence. We’re hearing reports of that throughout the country and I’ll be interested to hear what our colleagues today have to say about that. Once the eviction moratorium around the country ends, there’s gonna be a tremendous spike in evictions as people won’t have paychecks to pay their rent anymore. We’re obviously gonna see a spike in healthcare issues, scams aimed at the elderly. A whole host of things that I’m sure we’re gonna hear more about. The downturn in the economy is also gonna move people who were formerly above our poverty threshold in terms of eligibility, they’re gonna be falling below that threshold, so we’re gonna have many more potential clients. Second, while we’re facing this increased legal need, we have fewer resources to work with. A major source of funding is interest on lawyer’s trust accounts. And with the federal reserve having moved the interest rates to zero, the returns from those trust accounts are obviously gonna fall precipitously, I know. In Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Commission is estimating that they’re gonna lose a million dollars a month, which is a lot of money for legal aid programs. In Washington State, they’re projecting an annual loss of six million dollars. Which is literally enough to pay for dozens and dozens of lawyers and they’re losing the funding to do that. And while those first two things are happening, the third part of the triple whammy is they’re trying to do what they normally do but from home, remotely, as many and all of use are doing. But they’re obviously working in a profession and in an environment where they need to be with their clients, they need to see their clients. A lot of times, building up trust is critical and it’s very hard to do when you’re meeting somebody for the first time over the telephone or if you’re lucky over a smartphone.
You’re gonna hear more from our grantees in a moment. With regard to LSC, we’re the largest single funder of legal aid programs in America, so one thing we’re trying to do is get more money and we have succeeded in the CARES Act in getting 50 million dollars and then we’ll talk more about how we’re granting that out. But that’s been probably our single biggest contribution to the effort.
Levi: Thank you, Ron, that was a superb statement and very challenging picture. In no particular order, let’s just go to the grantees now and hear their perspective on how things are going. Laura, why don’t we start with you.
Laura Tuggle: Sure, thank you so much for having us on today and really helping us raise the profile of what we’re seeing in our communities and how others can help us in our work, hopefully. So Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, we’re one of two legal aid programs in the state of Louisiana and we serve about 50% of the state’s poverty population in 22 parishes. And we have about 105 staff members. Staff members, about 15% before COVID were based on site with community partners. So in VA hospitals, in medical clinics, at community colleges, at domestic violence agencies, at homeless one-stop centers. Really spread out within the community and we also operated five self-help desks. And pretty much evaporated over night with COVID.
On a good day our state has incredible challenges. The third highest poverty rate in the United States. We have the second highest rate of women killed by their intimate partners due to domestic violence. We currently rank as either the 49th or the 50th most unhealthy state which is really playing out into the incredibly high mortality rate with COVID-19 in our communities and the disproportionate impact on communities of color that we’re seeing in those death rates. We also have the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world. For a little while we went to number two and then this year we went back up to number one.
So we know that having gone through 10 presidentially declared disasters in Louisiana in the past 15 years, the 2008 economic crisis, the BP oil spill, which just had its 10th anniversary this week, all of the economic challenges and disasters are really coming together in this one which we know is gonna be our program’s biggest civil legal aid crisis in our 50+ year history. And very likely that will play out on the national level.
As Ron mentioned in Louisiana, we had our typical things that you see. Now in the country, schools closed March 16th, courts closed, March 16th. Shelter-in-place orders were put in place in New Orleans on March 19th and statewide on March 23rd. We have had 216,000 unemployment claims filed in the passed few weeks. That is more than 10,000 claims a day which is 30 times our state average of 300 a day. And we have the third-highest per capita mortality rate from COVID.
And so with all this coming together, what my deputy director and I, we had a pretty agonizing weekend, which I’m sure everybody had, that weekend of March 14th and 15th, and we decided we gotta close our doors to our clients come Monday morning. Because we could make them sick, we realized we had 30% of staff with school-aged children, no schools, no day care. We realized we had 35% of our own staff who were in high risk factors for COVID, due to age or preexisting conditions. So, we knew that’s what we had to do. And so for the past month or so, we have 100% of our staff operating and working remotely. Our attorneys were in a much better position to do that than our support staff. So we really spent our first week or so figuring out how are we gonna get our staff the tools they need? We ordered laptops, we did a lot of other things, electronic document signing, which we previously didn’t have. Did a lot of skills training while everybody was trying to figure out ‘how am I going to do this’? Once we decided we’re all gonna work remotely ready or not, here we come, we’re doing it. Then that’s what we decided to do.
We’ve been really facing a lot of challenges with illegal evictions, the unemployment spikes, all the things Ron talked about, and using a lot of new strategies to figure out how to reach our client base. So I’m gonna leave that alone ’cause I might have gone over my time.
Levi: Thank you. We should come back to that if we do have time. Raun? What do you see?
Raun Rasmussen: Thanks David, and thanks for providing this opportunity to talk about our services and the work that our incredible staff is doing. So, I’m the Executive Director of Legal Services NYC, we have a staff of about 600 serving roughly 50,000 clients a year in New York city which has, some of you may know, a population of a little over 8 million. A poverty population of about 1.7 million. We told our staff to start working from home on March 12th, and we closed our offices on March 17th, so right around the same time frame that Laura was talking about. We, in New York state and New York city were seeing the need to close schools, social distance, protect our staff and our clients. We mobilized our entire team pretty much over night, I have to say, although over night of course takes two or three weeks because like Laura we had to purchase maybe a few more but about 150 laptops and printers and WiFi, Mi-Fis, too. And then figure out how to distribute them when we were supposed to be keeping our social distance from each other. So that was a big challenge for our IT team and for our directors of administration, et cetera et cetera.
I will say that our staff has been incredible from day one. We have a long history of, as Laura does, responding to crisis, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and the economic downturn in 2008. And our staff are energized by the opportunity and the need to respond to the needs of our clients that are so exacerbated under situations like this. The big difference in this situation and the reason why I agree with Laura saying this is gonna be the roughest disaster that we’ve responded to is that this disaster is driving us apart, physically. And it makes it a lot more challenging to work together. We’re finding ways to do that, but it also makes it a lot more challenging to support each other. And given the amount of illness, and I’ll talk about that a little bit more, in the community, in the city, and also among our staff, that support is really critical.
So, our, we have an access line that continues to function remotely. Twelve staff members who speak more than 16 languages, kept our services open that way. Existing clients of course had to be continue to be served. And then there are new clients who are facing illegal evictions, who have challenges applying for unemployment insurance who have to continue, who have problems with domestic violence. And so we have to both respond to our existing clients, which we continue to do, but also anticipate the needs of new clients who have COVID-related problems. A couple of exciting things that I’ll mention that have happened. One is that our social workers created an emergency client fund recognizing that there are a lot of our clients that are not either able to access public benefits or are not eligible for certain kinds of public benefits, so we created an emergency client fund with private fundraising efforts and now a couple of grants that we’ve applied for too that we will provide, we hope, up to $200,000 for clients who can’t afford food or just the most basic of essentials. We have also created a broad range of Know Your Rights materials that are both already available for clients and for those who aren’t clients, but are also training materials for our staff and for other advocates in New York City.
The last thing I’ll just say is that we’ve also needed to pay attention to the survival of our organization. Meaning that we’ve had to focus on stabilizing and ensuring that our structure will be stable going forward. We’ve already heard about the IOLTA challenges, we’re gonna face those hear in New York city and state. A post-economic crash in 2010, the IOLTA fund went from 36 million down to $6 million pretty much within a year. And we anticipate a similar kind of crash this time around. We have recently passed a state budget, but the governor reserved the right to reduce funding going forward. And there is on April 30th and June 30th and December 31st, the governor has the right, if the revenues are less than 99% of what was otherwise anticipated to reduce funding across the board. So we’re anticipating state cuts, we learned last week that there are $20 million in city cuts to our housing funding coming. And there’s more to come. So stabilizing our organization going forward from a both overall funding and a cash flow standpoint, and making sure most importantly that our staff are supported so that they can continue to provide great services for our clients is what we’re trying to manage.
Levi: Thank you.
Flagg: David, if I could just interject here. The numbers that Raun just mentioned, just in New York state and New York City, a $30 million reduction in IOLTA 10s of millions of dollars reduction in housing funding in New York City, this puts in perspective how far our $50 million emergency funding across the entire country, across 122 grantees can go. So when people say, “well $50 million is a lot, “that should take care of it.” No, it’s at best, a good first step, but it’s nowhere near enough to take care of it and we’re back at Congress right now seeking more funds and they’re asking why. And Raun just gave a pretty good answer, I believe.
Levi: So the 50 million you’re referring to is the provision in the CARES Act for legal services and am I right?
Flagg: Correct. And we asked for 100 million and we’re still seeking that additional 50 million and when you hear numbers like what Raun just described-
Levi: You need it.
Levi: You obviously need it. But good for you to get into the CARES Act. Let’s go on to California, the situation out there maybe it’s a little bit different than Louisiana and New York, but we don’t know what the future will bring. Yvonne.
Yvonne Mariajimenez: Well, good morning and thank you David. Thank you for this invitation to talk about the important work that we do. So let me just give you a perspective of size. Neighborhood Legal Services of LA County serves all of Los Angeles county, we have 10 million residents in the county, and about a little under 2 million are eligible for our services. Also, let me give you a perspective of the number of people that we serve based on the number of cases we represent, the community outreach and education that we do through Know Your Rights services, through clinics that we have in the community. Through our court based projects, we served over 180,000 people last year with all of those services combined.
So the magnitude of taking our organization, converting it to remote operations was quite a challenging task for us. We have four main offices, we are based in nine county courthouses across the county. We have medical-legal partnerships, which are separate and based at three hospitals and six community clinics. So it was quite a reach into the community and portals of how we could, people could access our services and how we could reach out to the community, not just in representing in cases but also assisting people through community clinics and doing significant community outreach and education. We ramped up, literally worked over night, we started to cut back doing remote services as of the week of the 13th, stay-at-home orders came out on the 19th and our offices were completely shut down on the 20th. And we worked literally around the clock for a week and a half to go to complete remote operations. And we set up special phone lines, people were equipped with laptops, everyone was equipped with webcams or laptops with webcam capacity. We set up special email addresses so that people could get into the program and have intakes done. We have two significantly large court-based projects where we’ve been working with the courts for almost 20 years now. So it was a very well-oiled machine. We have two sister legal services programs that are working with us in that endeavor.
Those services literally shut down over night and had to also go to remote operations. The challenge was quite it was quite a task to do that. Let me just say that we were fortunate that we were a grantee of the, LSC, the Legal Service Corporation Disaster Legal Services Grant which allowed us to obtain and purchase equipment and in preparation for a disaster. Not knowing that COVID-19 was coming on the scene. And we leveraged all of that technology that we had purchase and software licenses in order to ramp up. And within a week and a half, we were pretty much at 80% remote capacity and shortly thereafter went to 100% remote capacity.
Let me tell you that even then it’s been difficult to get out into the community. We are collaborating with community based organizations, faith institutions, schools, they are teaching people how to use Zoom in English and Spanish and Chinese and all the 12 threshold languages that we speak here in LA county. So getting ordinary residents trained on technology so we can then convene these virtual community gatherings and begin giving people information and teaching people. It’s been challenging, but we’re working collaboratively with organizations to get to do that. Because that was one of our greatest outreach portals that we had.
I think that also, the issues presenting have also changed. Housing continues to be at the top, the people at risk of losing their housing have been great in Los Angeles county. It became even more drastic after COVID-19. The second issue presenting now in huge numbers is unemployment benefits and the need to obtain public benefits also related to social security, disability and the like. Many of the issues that Neighborhood Legal Services is confronting right now, I think are similar to what Raun and Laura described.
Let me go to funding because I think that that is a significant challenge for organizations here in California. Starting with IOLTA. 2019 was a fabulous year for IOLTA in California. We had approximately 60 million that was distributed among legal services community and our IOLTA grant more than doubled. We’re facing a more than 50% decrease in IOLTA in the coming year. It’s probably gonna be even a greater decrease. Therefore the vision of allocating more funding to the efforts around housing and unemployment are really at risk. The other thing is LA county was in negotiation, legal services programs were in negotiation with the leadership with LA county/LA city to implement right to counsel programs. And we were just at the end of that ready to sign contracts. These are multimillion-dollar efforts for the county alone it was gonna be a seven and a half million dollar effort that funding allocated to legal services to then provide representation to tenants in evictions. That came to a halt overnight and it’s not going forward. Because of COVID-19 the leadership of the state and our local leadership have turned our focus completely on COVID-19.
So discussions on expanding services to people at risk of housing has come to a halt. Let me tell you that right now we have more torrents in effect. We are still serving a number of people who have rogue who are in rogue situations where landlords are still trying to evict or trying to take people’s benefits in order to pay rent. That said, we do expect that when the orders are lifted probably in June and July, there’s gonna be an onslaught of evictions in LA county. And we’re not prepared. The right to counsel efforts that were under discussion came to a halt and did not come to fruition. Therefore, that’s a challenge that we’re facing as an organization. I think the legal services in LA county as to how we’re gonna deal with that. LA county had a huge homeless crisis to begin with and we’re just gonna be adding to it if those needs are not addressed. So that is a little bit of what our organization is confronting and just the magnitude of the need in LA county, just the size, the sheer size of it, I think really sets us apart. We’re, I think pretty close to what Raun is experiencing in New York.
Levi: Just before leaving you, could I ask you two things that I’m sure people viewing this will be interested in? One is, how you are dealing with the courts who are now closed, at least the court rooms are closed, but we had a panel of judges last week and they’ve described their efforts to stay open virtually. And the second is how about your clients who don’t have iPads, iPhones and access to computers, how are they managing to stay in contact with their attorneys to get help from your organizations?
Mariajimenez: So let me go to the courts first. I think that the courts were very aware that they needed to improve technology and I think that that issues has really catapulted to the top now with COVID-19. Although the courts closed and set up electronic portals, phone lines in order for attorneys to have access, they failed in the beginning. And so our attorneys are making in-court appearances for protective orders. The evictions dwindled and came to a halt because of the moratoriums that were put in place. Prior to that we were also making the court appearances and meeting people at the courthouse.
Today I think the court has really ramped up. There is more access, telephonic access. The courts are going to video conferences and telephonic appearances. The two areas that are still high in demand, number one, protective orders. We’re still seeing about 30 a week. And that is a decline from what we saw before, but I think that that is because of the difficulty of people having access. But we’re seeing 30 a week, protective orders. And our attorneys are still doing in-court appearances on those, the courts are open for those. Evictions, as I said, are now dwindling. But our attorneys have made some appearances in those as well for continuances. So, but we’re working in collaboration with the courts to ensure that people continue to be served for essential emergency cases.
Your second question…
Levi: Clients who don’t have technology.
Mariajimenez: Yes, so let me tell you that for unemployment benefit, we have an office that is actually constructed in a way that we were going to launch unemployment clinics during Monday. It’s divided with glass. So our staff could actually be on one side of the glass, clients on the other side of the glass, we are setting up appointments on the hour to have people come in to the office and then be interviewed and go online to do those applications. It’s been a challenge, David. It’s a funnel. We had a huge demand for our services and now with the fact that we can’t see people in great numbers in person. It’s a funnel, right? It’s trying to get into the portals that we set up but they’re not accessing or providing the access that we once had for people. So working with faith-based institutions and community groups is really a priority for us right now. Just to get people into our programs for services.
Levi: Thank you. Let’s go to Lynn, Lynn-
Levi: Yeah, sure.
Rasmussen: David, I just wanted to add one thing really quickly, this is Raun. In New York city we had an interesting moment right when the courts closed, quote unquote. They said they would still handle emergencies and in particular emergency evictions. Illegal evictions. Landlords who had pre-moratorium evicted somebody and the tenant was trying to get back in. Or post-moratorium roommates who were trying to or who were changing the locks on their doors because they were, although they might have been happy to room with someone where they only saw them an hour a day, when they were living with them it became untenable. So we then had a moment where we were required as were other legal services providers on a rotating basis to handle those emergencies. And there was a question about whether our staff were actually willing to go into court.
Fortunately the courts were able to handle all of those cases remotely. So emergencies have continued to be handled remotely and we’ve taken them. Now the courts are starting to handle so-called non-essential matters remotely. Which means that cases that are scheduled for a motion hearing next week where there are two attorneys, attorneys are being encouraged to contact the other attorney to figure out whether they can argue the motion in front of the judge or submit it and that sort of thing.
Levi: Thank you. Lynn, how is LSC trying to help the grantees during this really terrible time?
Lynn Jennings: Yes it is. Before I get started, I just want to say I’ve known Yvonne and Raun and Laura for a number of years and just listening to them, I’m just so inspired by their leadership and ingenuity and adaptability. So I just want to give them a shoutout for all of the amazing work that they and their staff are doing. But I think the touch stone at LSC is that we wanna partner with our grantees and we wanna serve as a resource for them and be as flexible as possible.
So we started reaching out to our grantees around mid-March and we held a conference call, a webinar with all of our grantees. And one of the questions we asked was how telework ready were they 132 grantees across the country and in the US territories and Puerto Rico? And 90% of our grantees indicated that they needed additional resources. So internally we worked together and we put together a telework capacity grant. Initially before we got our CARES Act money, we had identified other funding sources that we could use in the interim to get the money out the door, so. In what I consider lightning speed having worked in the grant world for over 30 years is that we got together a grant program, sent out the application in a week. Reviewed the grant applications and 126 grantees will get their deposits in their bank account for their telework grants tomorrow. The average grant is about $19,000 and they’ll be buying laptops, Mi-Fis, a variety of things.
And then when we did get the CARES Act money it was thinking about how we can distribute these funds quickly. In the past three years, we’ve gotten a couple of appropriations for the natural disasters that have taken place and those were two tranches of $15 million. And we had a long competition process for that, but due to the immediacy of the COVID crisis we thought we cannot have 132 people come in and try to say that we are more effected by COVID than the other person. So, we decided working with our office of data governance and analysis, to come up with a formula to give out these grants that we have. Generally we give out $400 million on a basic field grant each year based on a poverty population in a given area. So, the poverty population that we have for those service area remains, but we also are taking into account the unemployment insurance filings over the past four weeks. And we will be getting the CARES Act money out to our grantees next week.
So, we have tried to be as adaptable and flexible as possible with our grantees in getting this money out and the resources that we have available. One of the other things that we’re doing is normally we have a year-long cycle of oversight visits to our grantees. Well obviously with all the travel restrictions we are not doing that. And I think that they will not have the burden of us coming to visit them and we are taking a different approach to oversight and we too have to improvise about how we’re doing things, because we know we’re still giving out 100s of millions of dollars in federal funds that require a lot of oversight and how do we do that in a less invasive way? And so we’re working on that.
So, I think our goal is to get them as much money as we possibly can through our Government Affairs Department, be as flexible as we can in terms of oversight and provide enough technical assistance for them to exchange information and learn from each other. So we have set up, we would recommend that you go on the LSC.gov website ’cause we have a whole COVID-19 page. And we have all the resources that are available for our grantees. So, I just we’re there to serve them because they’re doing a phenomenal job and I applaud them.
Levi: Well sounds like, you’ve done a wonderful job of really turning things around. I know most foundations and grants based entities it does take them a long time to approve grants and you’re doing a marvelous job.
Flagg: David if I could add-
Jennings: well we have a wonderful team at LSC and we too are all working remotely.
Levi: Yeah, Ron.
Flagg: If I could add just one additional point, which is we are also trying to serve as a national voice for our grantees and for the entire legal aid community. We need to be able to communicate to the public and to Congress with stories of the clients that are served by our grantees and the challenges that our grantees face in terms of funding as well as in terms of their own operations. And one function that LSC can serve is to amplify the voices of Laura and Raun and Yvonne and their colleagues around the country.
Levi: So let’s go back to the grantees and obviously resources is a theme here and a very important one. But putting resources, let’s just say to the side for the moment, if you had to identify one really pressing challenge that’s emerged as a result of the pandemic, what would that be? Laura, let’s start with you.
Tuggle: I don’t know if I can say just one, but I’m
Levi: Take two.
Tuggle: I might be able to do two. So, we’ve talked about this a little bit before, but I think one of the really ongoing issues is gonna be how do we reach the client population who don’t have unlimited minutes on their cell phone or don’t have internet or don’t even have a phone. All those kind of things that you really need to be able to reach us now. I think we’ve done by deploying other strategies such as doing Facebook Live sessions, we decided, let’s do one of these. And so we did one of those right before April 1st was due, the first month that rent was due. And working with some of our community partners and in New Orleans with our disaster readiness department there we asked them to promote it like an hour before the event and we had 4,300 people watch that, which was a shock to us.
So then we decided, okay let’s do a lot more of these, we were able to do live chats, respond to it in real time. So the newly unemployed, a lot of the newly unemployed folks who previously might not have been our clients that are a little more tech savvy and now have and no income they are some pretty good ways through technology that they are reaching us. But our seniors, our homeless clients, our people living on a fixed income that don’t have as many resources, that’s where we’re really spending a lot of our time thinking about how do we reach into their living room and bring them services. And so we’ve had a lot of different thoughts about that. One of them was almost in the first week or so we launched our COVID-19 legal helpline and we really turned to the media because we figured people are sitting around in their living room just like us all day, trying to figure out what’s my next move and so we’ve probably had a dozen or so stories in the past week or so and the medias been pretty good about sharing our COVID-19 legal helpline.
Just yesterday I really sort of had an affirmation that that was a really good thing to have done early on because we had a woman whose husband, she was calling us from her hospital bed, there because of COVID, she’d seen the phone number on the local TV from one of our illegal eviction stories. And her husband had died on March 11th from COVID, she had lost her job, and now her landlord was threatening to put her out. And here she is trying to fight off this illness which just destroyed her life and livelihood and she’s having to worry about being put out when there’s a legal order from the governor saying no evictions. And so it really makes you mad, at the same time it makes you really sad, but it’s also good to know that we were able to help her and resolve the situation but that she might not otherwise have found us if we weren’t pushing out, through media, more than we typically do.
We also decided that we would reach out to one of our foundation partners that has previously provided our funded some of our work because we remembered that they had a hospital chaplains program that they funded and also what they call a Church Nurses Program. So we had an ah-ha moment and reached out to that foundation who has now set up a Zoom town hall meeting with 853 churches through their Church Nurses Program that we’ll be able to meet with tomorrow and also reaching out to some of the chaplains that are literally at people’s hospital beds. So we’re trying to think of all the different ways we can to reach people and I think that’s gonna continue to be really challenging.
Levi: Thank you. Raun, biggest challenge.
Rasmussen: That ones pretty easy for me. It’s supporting our staff. In New York City there are over 110,000 cases of the coronavirus. This morning they announced that there had been 10,000 deaths. And the impacts of COVID-19 have fallen most heavily on people of color. Including members of our staff. Impacts on their health, impacts on their finances, impacts on the education of their children, many of whom as you were indicating earlier may not have access to the technology or the technology supports to allow them to respectively engage with the remote learning that they have to do.
I was on a conference call with one of our executive leadership team members yesterday morning and he had just had a close relative pass away, he had three young kids at home, his wife’s a healthcare worker, so she was on the front line, and he was managing the call while faced with all of those stresses. And every week we are hearing from more and more of our staff about family members who have passed away. And so figuring out how to provide the emotional support, the technological support, to allow people to continue to function as the effective advocates that they want to be is our biggest challenge. We’ve even, I’m sorry to say, had to put together a training for people on how to deal with callers who are talking about suicide. The pressures are so great on people throughout the city and throughout the country right now that figuring out how to help people deal with those stresses is really key.
Levi: Yvonne, biggest challenge.
Mariajimenez: Well, I think Laura and Raun talked about two of the biggest challenges facing our organization, reaching people who don’t have access to us. But let me go to our work force. We have about 140 employees. Schools are shut down. We have a workforce now that and I would say three quarters of our staff are parents of minor children. And having children at home now it’s been quite difficult to do what they ordinarily do and then take care of children and now do schooling as well. But I look to the opportunities that are presented in everything including tragedies. And here, the ability to work with our staff to provide flexible schedules that they do perhaps work in the morning, deal with children in the afternoon and then get back online to return calls in the evenings or work on weekends. So it’s provided the opportunity to do more outreach to our clients during non traditional business hours.
But I do think that the hardest impact right now has been to staff. It’s disorienting and jarring to go literally over night to remote operations. And for some of our staff to have our receptionist to learn how to use electronic equipment and software in order to do what they used to do just in the office on the phone. So I do think that this stay-at-home situation COVID-19 has presented some challenges for our workforce overall.
Levi: Thank you. There’s been quite a discussion over the last few years within the legal services community about the role of technology and whether this is very promising or not so promising, and there are have been debates on this. I don’t think anybody things that technology will replace the lawyer or the need for a lawyer, but we’re having to adapt here in ways that we didn’t expect and maybe sooner. I’m wondering if whether you see long term effects here that might be beneficial in the long term. I know it’s hard to think about something good coming out of this when there’s so much that’s terrible but is there some way in which this could be transformative in a positive way? Are you seeing any green shoots there? What do you think, any of you?
Tuggle: In Louisiana we are seeing some glimmers of I guess, you would call, maybe some hope in how we could more effectively deliver services in the future. So about half of our service area is urban and about half of it is rural. And just thinking about how technology and partnering with libraries who are still closed but are pretty much all open digitally, how can we use some of what’s happening now to better serve some communities that we just, they had the same challenge getting to us, physically getting to us as others. And so we’ve had a long standing phenomena for whatever reason in our New Orleans office, it’s always been much more of a we’re just gonna walk in for services kind of scenario. Probably about 50-60% of our clients just walk in without an appointment, not calling ahead or anything like that. And so really figuring out, fast forwarding some ways that we can use technology to reach people is something that we’re really thinking about. It forced us to just jump in and dive in to things that we might have been putting off because we didn’t have to deal with it.
And in some ways we’re looking forward to being a little more effective on the operational side. So we probably had about 120 of our vendors, where we pay our rent, our utilities, all these kind of things, that we were still cutting paper checks. And so we’re looking at how we can pretty much go to electronic banking for some of those resources, be a little more efficient on that side too. And really increasing our partnerships with other community providers. One thing that we just really have been trying to do over the last year or so, we’ve had a couple of reentry projects where we actually go into prisons or jails and do a little bit of front end work shortly before people get released and we have long pretty much since we started been trying to get the department of corrections to let us do things by conference because it takes us like an hour to drive there and an hour to drive back and they’ve been very resistant to that and then all of the sudden we’re finally able to have conversations about video conferencing. And realizing that that might be something we’d be able to do. So I do think there will be some more effectiveness that comes out of it that will let us help more people.
Levi: That’s pretty interesting. We’ll see what happens. One of you mentioned this before, let us hope that the situation improves in the next few months. What’s it gonna look like for you when these stay-in-place orders or shelter orders are lifted and people are told, okay, put on a mask and get tested and go back to work. How’s that gonna, you’re gonna have an overload, I’m sure.
Raun, any thoughts on that?
Rasmussen: Yeah. there’s no question. I mentioned earlier that the courts are already starting to prepare by doing more, by not just simply adjourning cases. But saying, we expect you to try to resolve them instead of just pushing them off. The so-called non-essential cases. So everybody’s starting to think forward including creditors who are actually engaging in anticipatory garnishment, I’ll call it, they’re trying to garnish debtors so that they can get the federal funds when they get distributed. It’s really one of the most sickening aspects of these things, but we have always had to deal with a lot of bottom feeders and so those are, there’s gonna be a lot of them that are surfacing already. And that are gonna come out of the wood work full force when the courts open. So there’s gonna be a massive increase in filings and an overwhelming increase in filings.
We do have a right to counsel in New York City, in eviction cases, it’s not fully ramped up yet. And so our staff who are already feeling overwhelmed before this crisis and when the evictions multiply as they will very significantly once the courts open, I’m sure our staff are gonna feel very overwhelmed very fast. I think one of the big challenges of going back to work, we all faced some challenges in making the decisions about sending people home, should we do it now, should we wait til tomorrow? Et cetera et cetera.
I think sending people back to work is gonna be hugely challenging for all of us because people are gonna be very justifiably nervous about heading into crowded court rooms, about getting on public transportation to get back to work. About even sitting in an office next to somebody else who they don’t know when was the last person she was exposed to the coronavirus? So, and healthcare matters are some of the most intensely personal. And people carry their anxieties and fears in all kinds of different ways. And all of that is gonna play out among our staff and with our clients. Many of whom are gonna have their kids at home because schools are gonna remain closed through the end of June, likely. Summer programs are gonna be closed and so clients who have to come to court are gonna be bringing their kids with them. So, all of these issues are gonna be very challenging to address. Even though we’re all looking forward to the day, of course, when we’re back a little bit more to normal.
Levi: So, let me address this to you Ron, the people listening to this podcast and video are going to be mostly lawyers and judges and I’m sure they’ll have the same reaction that I’m having which is how heroic all of you are and how difficult these challenges are. Is there anything that the rest of us can do to be of assistance to you particularly during these very very difficult days and months?
Flagg: Thanks David, I would make two points, one a shorter-term point and one a slightly longer term point. So point one is an obviously one. Where you can, volunteer to do more pro bono work. In doing that, look to the legal aid providers in your community and those you can reach to identify the greatest needs faced by their clients. Also see if legal aid providers can use operational support. As we’ve heard, legal aid programs have expanded enormously their telework and their reliance on remote resources. But many of them — and most of our grantees are not as big and necessarily and sophisticated as those run by Laura, Yvonne and Raun — are not used to running large telecommunications networks and could use operational advice as to how to set up those arrangements. If you work for an organization that has that capacity in-house you might see if those resources in your operation could help a legal aid program with their operational issues.
Point two, a longer term one. Help educate the public about the justice gap in America. We have a justice system that is largely built by lawyers on the assumption that lawyers will be using the system, that is people who are using the system will be represented by lawyers. That assumption is generally false. 86% of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans are either totally unrepresented or inadequately represented. But people aren’t aware of that. People aren’t aware that in most courts, landlord tenant courts around America, 90% of the tenants are unrepresented. In many family courts around America, 90% of the defendants are unrepresented. Yet, most people and most lawmakers are unaware of this gap and as a result civil legal aid remains underfunded. You can help us educate the public, you can reach me at rflagg@LSC.gov and I’ll tell you how you can help, thanks.
Levi: I want to thank all of you. It’s so impressive what you’re doing and the difficulties are daunting to say the least and I’m sure everybody listening to this wishes you all the good luck and that they’re pulling for you and I hope some of them be in a position actually to assist you as Ron just indicated. Thank you for taking this time to be with us and to explain what you’re seeing and doing. Thank you for the hard work in a time of such difficulty and desperation for many of your clients.
This has been Coping with COVID, a podcast and video series produced by the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School and the American Law Institute. I’m David Levi, thank you for joining us.