News

Pandemic Lawyering: A Year in Review

/ Blog Post

By Lauren Wright, Equal Justice Works Marketing & Communications Specialist

COVID-19 has created an economic catastrophe for under-resourced communities in America, greatly exacerbating existing needs and spawning countless new civil legal issues.

For those affected, access to legal services can make all the difference. Throughout this remarkably difficult time, Equal Justice Works Fellows across the country have stepped up to respond to the needs of underserved communities.

Housing

One of the most obvious and immediate economic effects has been the record-high rates of unemployment, with job losses concentrated in low-paid industries and disproportionately affecting Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers. Unable to pay rent, many families have faced evictions, legal or not, in spite of federal and state eviction moratoria. Throughout the pandemic, members of the Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program have worked tirelessly to ensure tenants can remain safely in their homes in the Greater Richmond Region of Virginia.

Photos of Laura Wright and Omari Al-Qadaffi

Collaborating across host organizations, Fellow Laura Wright and Community Organizer Omari Al-Qadaffi have been working with tenant advocates to make some COVID-era housing protections permanent. One such bill, which was set to expire on July 1, 2021, extends the Pay or Quit notice period—during which tenants must either pay rent or vacate the property—from five to fourteen days. For a family struggling to pay rent, these extra nine days can make the difference between staving off a costly eviction and losing their home. Laura and Omari organized a large group of tenants and advocates to speak directly to committee members in support of the bill; the bill passed with a “sunset clause” that sets an expiration date of July 1, 2022. Next year, Laura says, they will return in hopes of removing the clause altogether.

Laura also successfully advocated for the expansion of a bill, which initially only allowed tenants who are employees of the federal government and have experienced a loss of income due to a government shutdown to get a 60-day continuance of their eviction case, to also cover all tenants who have lost income due to COVID. As various state and federal moratoriums have expired, this bill, signed into law April 22, 2020, has been one of the only consistent tenant protections during the entire lockdown period, and thanks to the efforts the other Housing Justice Program Fellows, hundreds of tenants have avoided eviction during the pandemic. It is a perfect example of how policy advocacy, tenant organizing, and direct representation have worked together to keep as many tenants in their home as possible.

Photos of Daryl F. Hayott and Palmer Heenan

The need for tenant education has only become more urgent amid a rapidly shifting landscape of temporary protections, spurring Housing Justice Program participants to generate a variety of informational resources. For Virginia Poverty Law Center, Laura and Daryl created a new webpage for tenants seeking COVID-specific information, while Fellow Daryl F. Hayott has dispensed advice via the organization’s Eviction Legal Helpline. Fellow Palmer Heenan has remained a prolific housing justice resource in his own right, appearing on cable news, in podcasts (alongside Omari), and in courtrooms to offer expertise wherever possible.

Prisoners’ Rights

Stuck in overcrowded facilities, inmates in jails, prisons, and detention facilities nationwide are another population at high risk due to the pandemic.

Photo of Sara Wolovick

“We have seen the virus spread like wildfire in facilities that have dorm-style housing and no way to socially distance,” said Fellow Sara Wolovick, whose project focuses on protecting incarcerated individuals in Utah from constitutional violations and medical neglect. Sara has remained dedicated to fighting for greater COVID-19 safety measures and more transparency regarding mass outbreaks and inmate deaths in custody. As the death toll has risen in Utah correctional facilities, Sara has been repeatedly cited by The Salt Lake Tribune as a trusted source on the matter. In addition to advocating for better safety measures, medical care, and transparency for incarcerated people, Sara also organized a vigil for families and friends of incarcerated people and has been working to publicize firsthand accounts from incarcerated people.

Photo of Clara Spera

In December, Fellows Joseph Longley and Clara Spera, hosted by the ACLU National Prison Project and the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, respectively, supported a lawsuit that ordered Orange County jails to reduce their population by 50% to diminish outbreak risks. Clara’s Fellowship is focused on protecting and expanding access to reproductive care—early on in the pandemic, it became clear that COVID-19 was posing particular challenges to pregnant women and mothers. Clara focused on some of the most at-risk among that group, women behind bars, in light of the heightened COVID-19 risks associated with pregnancy, motherhood, and imprisonment. One of the named plaintiffs in the Orange County lawsuit was a nursing mother who was denied the ability to provide her child with breastmilk during the early days of the pandemic.

Photo of Joseph Longley

Joseph’s Fellowship is dedicated to securing access to necessary care for people in jails and prisons addicted to opioids. Amid dramatic infection spikes in facilities nationwide, Joseph argued that increased access to medication for addiction treatment (MAT) was necessary “to conserve hospital resources and save lives.” Overlapping symptoms mean that an individual with COVID-19 symptoms could be misidentified as experiencing opioid withdrawals, not quarantine as they would if properly diagnosed, then become a vector of transmission to other incarcerated individuals. In February 2021, Joseph was involved in another ACLU lawsuit that succeeded in securing lifesaving methadone treatment for a 53-year-old woman serving a thirty-day sentence. This was the first time that the jail had provided methadone, a basic lifesaving medication, to a non-pregnant detainee since 2016.

(Above: In a video shown at the 2020 Scales of Justice, Joseph explains the dire need for MAT—medication for addiction treatment—in jails and prisons amid COVID-19.)

Education
Photo of Tori Porell

Abrupt school closures last spring plunged students and teachers alike into uncharted territories of virtual learning, and a year later, many are still struggling with issues like isolation, inadequate support, and lack of resources. At the most foundational level, many students, such as those from low-income or rural families, simply don’t have access to reliable, high-speed internet.

Fellow alum Tori Porell noted the uneven playing field for students with disabilities adjusting to virtual learning, even in well-resourced communities. “We have heard talk of students being able to receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, or mental health services through telehealth, but I haven’t seen any district roll that out yet,” Tori noted in April 2020, during her Fellowship. She received two grants specifically for her Kindergarten Readiness Project at East Bay Children’s Law Offices to provide culturally and developmentally appropriate distance learning to all clients entering kindergarten in Fall 2020.

Photo of Kel O’Hara

Kel O’Hara, another Fellow who works with students—specifically LGBTQ+ survivors of gender-based violence and harassment—shared concern about the safety and mental health of college students forced to leave the support and community of campus environments during this “collectively traumatic time.” Kel developed an online resource for Title IX administrators about best practices during COVID-19, including considerations for remote campus hearings, which has been accessed over 1,200 times.

Equal Justice Works is proud to support Fellows across the country addressing the broad range of civil legal issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more about the work of our Equal Justice Works Fellows, visit here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow