Two medical staff wearing protective suits treating a woman infected with coronavirus inside an isolation ward at a hospital. Photo: Mongkolchon Akesin/Shutterstock.com

As the global COVID-19 outbreak has escalated into a pandemic, labor and employment law firms have been inundated with calls from clients urgently seeking real-time guidance on how to respond to the fast-moving threat.

“All hands on deck,” was the uniform reply from leaders of three national labor and employment firms when asked about client inquiries over the coronavirus. Those firm leaders include Will Anthony at Jackson Lewis, Roger Quillen at Fisher & Phillips and Tom Bender at Littler Mendelson.

All said their firms’ task-force lawyers are fielding questions on a 24-hour basis and triaging them based on their urgency because client worries are at an unprecedented level.

Alka Ramchandani-Raj, a leader of Littler’s coronavirus task force, said that in early February she and the firm’s other workplace safety lawyers were fielding about 150 client calls or emails a day from clients regarding the outbreak.

Client demand has quickly ratcheted up since then, and lawyers handling all aspects of employment law are in demand. On Friday, Ramchandani-Raj led a webinar that attracted 5,000 clients eager to learn the latest on what to do in case of personnel exposed to or infected by the virus, medical privacy issues, employee leave policies, wage and hour law and potential furloughs.

“A lot of employment attorneys right now are straight-out crazy busy,” said New York legal recruiter Katie Babcock of Shapiro Legal Search. “Their employer clients are really just freaking out about how to handle potential layoffs or remote employees working from home, furloughs — anything.”

With social distancing now top of mind, the critical concerns for organizations have quickly shifted from questions about employee travel and hosting large events to asking whether they need to close offices or operations and how to deal with potentially sick employees, the lawyers said.

Clients across the board and in all industry sectors are seeking guidance, they added.

“Our lawyers’ phones are ringing off the hook,” said Quillen at Fisher & Phillips. For instance, he said, at 6:05 on Friday morning a Fisher & Phillips lawyer received a call from a school administrator who had to decide that day whether to cancel classes for the entire school system.

“That was just one call. It’s happening every day, all day,” Quillen said. “And the questions are morphing daily.”

As things have escalated, said Ramachandani-Raj, she’s now hearing questions such as: “Do I have to shut down my company if my employee has been infected–or even exposed?” Clients are even asking about secondary and tertiary exposure, she added.

While firms are seeing demand from all types of industries, health care and hospitality clients have particular concerns. “They have operations that are going to be ongoing while the pandemic is going on,” Ramchandani-Raj said.

‘Flying Blind’

Organizations are struggling to develop action plans for the unprecedented pandemic, the law firm leaders said. The shortage of testing kits in the United States means the scale and severity of the threat remain undetermined. “We don’t know how serious the threat is or how many people are infected, so business leaders don’t know what to do,” Quillen said.

“The absence of testing and absence of data really has the whole country flying blind,” he added. “Without much guidance from the authorities on this, clients are reaching out to us to find out the best policies and practices.”

The past week has seen an accelerating wave of business and school closures, along with state and citywide restrictions in New York, Texas, California and elsewhere on how many people can congregate in one place.

Now organizations want to know how to handle employees working remotely—or furloughs, pay and WARN reporting requirements when faced with shutting offices, schools and other operations. Remote work raises wage and hour issues for companies, such as tracking time for hourly staff, Jackson Lewis’ Anthony explained.

And there are HIPAA issues for clients who worry that a worker may have been exposed to the virus. “We counsel clients to ask them to stay out of the workplace until they’ve been cleared medically,” he said.

There are union issues as well, Anthony said. Many colleges have sent their students home, he explained, and their food service workers, maintenance staff and other employees are often unionized. “That’s keeping labor lawyers busy,” he said.

“It’s touching almost all our practice areas—even our litigators,” Anthony said, now that courts are restricting access or closing.

New issues are arising almost daily. Several states have temporarily closed schools, prompting employers to ask how to handle leave policies for parents with kids at home.

“We are telling employers they should suspend their attendance policies right now,” Ramchandani-Raj said, adding that some are creating new sick-leave policies for the duration of the pandemic.

Accelerating Urgency

Within the last two or three weeks, the national labor and employment firms have pulled together the coronavirus task forces of subject-matter experts across industries and practices to address clients’ wide-ranging concerns on a 24-hour basis.

Quillen said he could pinpoint the date when Fisher & Phillips lawyers realized the urgency of the issue for clients to Feb. 26. That’s when he was in Ft. Lauderdale for the firm’s annual Internal Counsel conference on cutting-edge issues in workplace law.

Quillen asked the firm’s clients and other guests that evening how many were concerned that the coronavirus outbreak might affect their business.

“Every hand went up,” he said, so the firm scheduled an extra session addressing the outbreak for 7:45 a.m. the next morning. He added that the firm’s top expert, a workplace safety lawyer, stayed up all night doing research and putting together a presentation.

Just about every attendee showed up the next morning, Quillen said. “The phones are ringing because people need action plans.”

Jack Newsham contributed to this report.