Legal Aid and State Bar offer help in the time of coronavirus

“While our physical doors are shut, we are maintaining access for clients to civil legal services and they should call,” says Lillian Moy, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. ​

ALBANY COUNTY — As New Yorkers wrestle with hardships caused by the coronavirus shutdown, the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York continues to offer services that meet “the very core of a person’s needs,” its director said. At the same time, the state court system in partnership with the New York State Bar Association is offering free legal expertise for New Yorkers who need help securing unemployment benefits through the appeal process.

The Legal Aid Society, which spans 16 counties, has set up a special line to answer questions arising from COVID-19: 1-833-628-0087.  

“We knew we would be a vital part of the community’s response,” said Lillian Moy, the organization's executive director, at Thursday’s county press briefing.

She commended her staff, which has coped “with the challenges of remote work with less than terrific technology.” Moy said, “We have learned how to do it.”

Currently, she said, “We’re seeing a lot of confusion; a lot of people are having trouble filing their unemployment insurance claim or getting it processed.”

Also, Moy said, there is widespread confusion about the moratorium on convictions and what it means. “Does it mean I don’t have to pay my rent or, if I’ve lost my job or lost my hours because of COVID-19 and I just don’t have the money to pay the rent, what will happen?”

Some landlords, Moy said, think that the moratorium on court proceedings means that their only resort is to do an illegal lockout.

For the future, Moy said, the Legal Aid society will offer the same services it has always provided, on housing, safety, and benefits — “the very core of a person’s needs.”

She went on, “We expect there will be long delays … and confusion about what a gig employee is entitled to, what an underemployed or self-employed person is entitled to.”

Also, Moy said, there will need to be interpretation of the Family and Medical Leave Act provisions that now cover employees who can’t work because they’re required to provide child care in their homes. The act requires larger employers to provide workers unpaid leave for serious family health issues.

Moy also noted there is confusion and congestion in courts. For example, in landlord-tenant disputes or disputes about qualifying for employment benefits, she said, “There is still some confusion about what is an essential matter.”

Moy said that, currently, intakes are a bit lower than usual for the Legal Aid Society’s senior services program, provided by the county.

“People still don’t realize they should call Legal Aid when they have a legal problem,” said Moy.

Among the questions being asked are: “How can I handle a death in the family?” Moy said. “Is a small estate proceeding an essential matter in the Surrogate Court?” she asked.

“These are all matters to be determined,” Moy said.

She noted that county agencies, like the Department of Social Services, have been cooperative and helpful to clients seeking, for example, SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“We’ve been very thrilled about that,” said Moy.

She concluded, “While our physical doors are shut, we are maintaining access for clients to civil legal services and they should call.”

 

Pro bono help

Hundreds of lawyers are preparing to assist New Yorkers who need help securing unemployment benefits, according to the New York State Bar Association; each will be matched with a pro bono attorney.

A new website, www.nysba.org/legalhelp, provides resources for filing an unemployment claim and will match attorneys with those whose claims are unsuccessful.

More than 26 million Americans — including over 1.4 million New Yorkers — have filed unemployment claims in recent weeks. More than 1,500 attorneys attended the bar association’s recent training program, “Applying for Unemployment: Client Counseling Under the CARES Act.” 

“Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are out of work due to the coronavirus, and we know that some of them will need help to obtain the unemployment benefits to which they are entitled,” said Chief Judge Janet DiFiore in a release from the association.

Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, of counsel at Latham & Watkins, is coordinating the network.

The website provides guidance both on filing unemployment claims and how to find help if those claims are denied. Participants detail their Unemployment Insurance or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims using an intake form. Once the form is complete, the association will match the participants with pro bono attorneys.

New York’s existing network of pro bono and public defense attorneys was strained prior to COVID-19, the release said. The state court system and the association are taking this action to ensure that all New Yorkers can exercise their right to legal counsel at a time when the need for legal services will likely be higher than ever before, and fewer people will be able to afford representation.

While the pro bono network’s first task is handling unemployment benefits, it is gearing up to also address a range of other issues, including evictions, domestic violence, and job and housing discrimination.

Lawyers who are interested in joining this cause should go to https://nysba.org/covidvolunteer/to sign up. Those with specific questions about volunteering should email covidvolunteer@nysba.org.

More Regional News

  • “A lot of these folks out this way do not want to go down into the city to get services so here we’re bringing services to them and I think this is just going to grow and grow,” said Sheriff Craig Apple of the new program to have social workers and trained EMS crews answer some emergency calls in rural Albany County.

  • As of Wednesday evening, 62.2 percent of Albany County’s residents had received at least one dose of vaccine as had 73.0 percent of county residents 18 or older. The number of residents attending the large points of dispensing or PODs run by the county has greatly decreased; this week, just 12 doses were administered at the county’s POD. The county has shifted its focus to community-based PODs.

  • The state’s new rules, for indoors, “strongly encourage” but do not require masks for students or campers and staff who are not fully vaccinated. Outdoors, masks are not required although students, campers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated are “encouraged” to wear a mask in certain higher-risk circumstances. Both indoors and outdoors, students, campers, and staff who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks. Finally, schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards.

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