COVID-19, A Year Later: “The Need Was Great.”

A year ago, we temporarily shut our physical offices due to COVID-19. None of us knew then what was to come and how long this would last.  Nor could we have imagined the challenges we would face and the suffering we would see. Many of us have been sick or cared for a sick family member. Sadly, many of us have lost someone close to us. NYLAG honors all who lost their battle with COVID. Through this crisis, NYLAG was a legal lifeline to so many. Below we share some reflections from the past year.

"The Need Was Great."

“When we closed our physical offices last year because of COVID, we thought it might be for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. A year was inconceivable. Yet, NYLAG mobilized to respond to the crisis in many different ways to provide a legal lifeline to so many during COVID. For example, our Domestic Violence Law Unit saw that victims and their children faced significant danger while being isolated with their abuser. With courts closed, survivors were having a hard time getting family offense petitions filed because no one in the court houses could help and there were language and technological barriers. So, NYLAG lawyers rose to the occasion to take on this work, even training students and pro bono firm attorneys, to interview, draft, and file family offense petition to help survivors and their children be safer. Our Employment Law Project pivoted to represent New Yorkers wrongfully denied unemployment insurance and Pandemic Assistance Unemployment benefits during COVID. The need was great as the number of unemployed New Yorkers increased by 931,600 in just one month at the start of the pandemic. We also immediately created the NY COVID-19 Legal Resource Hotline to give New Yorkers a centralized place to call and get free, credible, legal help. I’ve always believed in the power of a lawyer to help someone in need navigate tough and bureaucratic systems. Our incredible NYLAG staff stepped up, and no doubt will continue to help our clients get through this crisis.’ -Beth Goldman, President & Attorney-in-Charge

"I Lost Three Clients."

“I lost three of my homecare clients, all in their 90s, within days of each other due to COVID-19. ‘M’ struck me the most. She was one of two Holocaust survivor clients who died on the same day. I won M increased homecare hours at the end of May right after the pandemic peaked in NY. Months later, in January, the homecare agency abandoned M when she tested positive for COVID—a problem unique to the pandemic.

“Homecare advocacy during COVID-19 has been exhausting and has required more creativity. Homecare assessments and home visits must be virtual for a population that is isolated and has trouble with technology. Getting medical evidence to support appeals is difficult when doctors have limited availability and medical facilities restrict visitation. On top of that, the State has left many questions unanswered for COVID-positive Medicaid homecare patients who are not hospitalized. One year in and still little is clear, including which agencies will serve these cases. Fortunately, I knew of two from a client who tested positive earlier in the pandemic, one of which would work with M. But it took a week for the agency to identify home attendants to staff M’s case.

“M died the day the new agency would have started services. It is heartbreaking to have to close a case when a client is killed by a virus that affects everyone, sometimes before she gets the services she is entitled to.” -Peter Travitsky, Senior Staff Attorney

"So Many People Lost Jobs And Were In Crisis."

“Department of Labor (DOL) is asking some people to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits due to ‘fraud.’ Despite the negative connotation, it’s not a black and white issue. The definition is overly broad and that protects DOL, not people in need. When COVID first started, the main issue we received calls about to our NY COVID-19 Legal Resource Hotline was about unemployment. So many people lost jobs and were in crisis. Navigating the bureaucracy was frustrating and many people called us feeling like they were going crazy: the ways to apply for benefits, and policies, were changing what felt like daily. There was a lot of miscommunication. Applications and DOL spokespeople were often unclear. Now, people are coming to us confused and terrified that they are being told they have to pay back money that kept them and their family afloat during the worst of the pandemic. Yet, the issue was caused by no fault of their own. This is where a lawyer is instrumental to knowing how to respond and when to fight erroneous fraud allegations. No person should have to pay back benefits they were legally granted and desperately needed.” –Sirrah Harris, NYLAG Project Director.

"Then I Stopped Hearing From Her."

“Her last communication with me was, ‘now I can really rest.’ She was an educator in her 60s and her hospital social worker had referred her to NYLAG’s LegalHealth team. When I called her, she was in the ICU and doing her best to talk, but it was difficult for her. Yet, she was so grateful I reached out late on a Friday afternoon. She got COVID at work and two days later was in the ER. She was so frightened. She didn’t think she would get sick pay because she didn’t have enough hours accumulated. She was very worried about food since she wouldn’t have income and would have to quarantine after being released. I assured her that we would figure this out. All weekend long, I was haunted by this conversation. She was just doing her job and got sick. In her greatest time of need, she felt abandoned, angry, and anxious. I asked if she had someone who could help her, as the calls were hard for her and the doctors kept scolding her for trying to talk. She had a brother, but COVID forced the closure of his business and she didn’t want to add to his stress.

“Once, she couldn’t answer my call but sent a photo of herself with a breathing tube. It was startling. But it motivated me even more. She took great comfort that we would fight for her. I worked with my NYLAG colleague Anamaria, an employment law expert, to figure out her employment issues. I started sorting out SNAP, and other benefits. Anamaria reached out to her union, advocating for her to get sick pay. Justice was catching up to COVID’s unfathomable impacts and we were able to advocate successfully. She would get paid. I was so happy to give her the good news. I texted her an update. She replied: ‘Sounds wonderful-now I can really rest. It’s been a worrisome journey.’ Then I stopped hearing from her. She died days later. It was so cruel. I thought she was getting better.” – Julie Brandfield, Associate Director, NYLAG’s LegalHealth Division

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