Veronica Baxter, a blogger and legal assistant living and working in Philadelphia shares her tips on managing a law practice during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Typical occupational diseases that occur in a law office include things like carpal tunnel syndrome and high blood pressure from stress. One doesn’t think of the effect of a pandemic upon law office employees until it happens. Are employees who contract COVID-19 at the office or while performing work duties eligible for workers’ comp benefits?
An initial take on it would be, no – working closely with possible COVID-19 victims is not part of their job description. But this is looking at the issue too narrowly.
Your Law Firm’s Employees May Qualify For Workers’ Comp if They Contract COVID-19 on the Job
Each workers’ comp claim requires a fact-specific inquiry. Is the injured worker an employee? If so, did he or she contract COVID-19 on the job? Does the nature of the job make the worker more likely to contract COVID-19?
That last question is the sticking point. Let’s say your office has an open space with cubicles for the administrative assistants and paralegals. They share airspace in pretty tight quarters. There is an argument there that, since contagious COVID-19 carriers can be asymptomatic for up to two weeks, the workspace puts them at risk for contracting the coronavirus more so than someone not working in that space because it is impossible to maintain social distancing protocols.
Another example would be an attorney who must appear in court in a “cattle-call” type of hearing, where all attorneys and their clients show up at a specified time and their cases are called one by one. Does this not put the attorney at risk of catching the coronavirus from an asymptomatic individual also appearing? Again, there is no possibility of social distancing in this situation.
How Can You Minimize the Risk of Your Employees Contracting COVID-19 at the Office?
Of course, you want to do whatever you can to keep your employees healthy and working. There is no 100% way to safeguard against COVID-19 at the office, but there are sensible and workable measures you can take to make work safer.
Allow Those Who Can to Work From Home
These days, when most courts allow or even encourage electronic filing, this should, in theory, be possible for most employees of the firm. If your assistants, paralegals, and attorneys do not have a suitable phone, computer or laptop, make those purchases. Obviously, that purchase is a write-off, but you also get quality-control that way. If everyone has the same equipment and software, it will be much easier to interface as well.
When working with a physical file is necessary, someone might be at the office scanning documents in for remote workers. You can make it work – be creative.
Use Technology For Virtual Consultations
Interacting with potential clients over the phone protects your employees from whatever germs or viruses they might bring with them into the office. Granted, a phone conversation is not the ideal way to meet and convert a new client, however, there is also Skype, Facetime, and Zoom, where you can meet for consultations face-to-face, but online. Try it.
Have Attorneys Appear Telephonically in Court When Possible
Telephonic appearances are mandated by decree in many states already. If it is not mandated in your jurisdiction yet, call the judge’s chambers to ask for a telephonic appearance for yourself and your client. Conference calls are easy to arrange.
What Every Law Office Needs to Combat COVID-19
If you absolutely must have people at the office, you can make that space safer by:
Optimizing the Layout of Your Office
Have folks spread out more. Make sure air is circulating. Anyone not feeling well, coughing, sneezing, or having a fever must be sent home and stay home.
Posting Hand Sanitizer Stations and Encouraging Its Use
There are hand sanitizer stands with refillable dispensers. Post one or more of these at the office near a written reminder to use hand sanitizer throughout the day and avoid touching your face. Verbal reminders as well as modeling the desired behavior will help too.
When handling inbound packages, envelopes, documents, and other items, wash hands immediately.
If you have a postal department, or your post comes to you directly from the carrier, feel free to handle it but wash your hands promptly thereafter. While the risk is low that you can catch COVID-19 from envelopes or packages, there still is a risk.
Disinfecting Commonly Touched Places and Items Throughout the Office
Again, there is a small risk that the virus could be transmitted to a surface by an infected person, your employee touches that same surface, then your employee touches his or her face, resulting in infection. Frequently clean things like:
- doorknobs and handles,
- light switches,
- Coffee pots
- the keypads of microwaves, scanners, and copiers
- toilet handles
The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a list of sanitizers and disinfectants that are effective against COVID-19.
Hopefully, these tips will help you continue to operate your law office during this public health crisis, but in the safest way possible. And if one of your employees does happen to contract COVID-19, with the safeguards you put in place it will likely not be through work.
About the Author
Veronica Baxter is a blogger and legal assistant living and working in the great city of Philadelphia. She frequently works with Larry Pitt, Esq. a busy Philadelphia workers’ compensation lawyer.