In an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered that all non-essential workers in New York City stay home. Similar orders have been instituted in cities across the country. Determining which workers are considered “essential” has been somewhat controversial. Now the American Bar Association is calling on the federal government to declare the legal workforce essential.
The governors of 17 states and the mayors of multiple cities across the country have instituted “shelter in place” orders. These orders require that people stay at home unless they perform “essential” services. While first responders and healthcare professionals are obviously considered essential during this time, it has become difficult to determine which other workers may be considered essential. Is the legal workforce essential? Some states such as Illinois and California have included legal services in the definition of essential. However, in New York, law firms and legal services have not been deemed essential unless they are performing certain duties.
This confusion led to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) call for legal services to be deemed by the federal government as essential so that lawyers can travel to work during shelter-in-place orders. The ABA sent a letter to Christopher Krebs, the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). In the letter, the ABA president argued that people need access to legal services especially during a national emergency such as the current pandemic.
With all of the ever-changing orders, laws, and directives being instituted in the midst of this crisis, it has become very important for people and businesses to seek legal advice. The letter notes that “lawyers can help Americans as they address unexpected challenges and solve problems in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus.” For example, many Americans are looking toward obtaining wills and healthcare directives. In order for these documents to be executed, a lawyer would need to travel to their office and have their client sign in person. In addition, criminal defense attorneys may need to meet with incarcerated clients.
On March 26, 2020, a spokesman for CISA stated that federal agencies had coordinated and developed a list of what businesses could be considered essential. The list is to be used as guidance for state and local governments, but it is not a federal mandate. State and local governments still have the power to make ultimate decisions about what part of the workforce they consider essential.
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