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Law firms step in to help businesses transition as virus spreads

While some Baltimore businesses can simply send their employees home to work, many other employers are facing difficult legal questions about how to proceed during the coronavirus pandemic and have turned to local law firms for help.

The effects of the virus have already caused some law firm clients to consider instituting furloughs and layoffs or shutting down, said Kirsten Eriksson, a principal at Miles & Stockbridge and a co-leader of the firm’s Labor, Employment, Benefits & Immigration practice group.

“Everything is time-critical and needs to be turned around so fast,” Eriksson said about companies’ response. “We’ve been largely fielding protective and proactive questions: ‘At what point should I ask employees to work from home?’ ‘Can I still ask them to come in for work?’ We’re also starting to get calls from people who tested positive, or had contact with people who were exposed and want guidance.”

Other questions include whether companies have to pay employees who are forced to miss work because of virus concerns. Eriksson said the answer often depends on whether the workers are hourly or salaried and if they’re exempt from overtime pay.

Several law firms said handling the response to the coronavirus has essentially been the only issue they have dealt with over the last two weeks.

Charles Bacharach, a partner at Gordon Feinblatt LLC and chair of the Baltimore firm’s employment practice, said that the employers he works with have been doing a good job with their response but emphasized that “it’s a complicated situation.”

Bacharach said some industries face more complications than others.

“The health care industry is a whole different issue, because they are not only dealing with employees, they’re working on the front lines against the virus,” Bacharach said. “The nursing home industry is especially on edge given what this means for the elderly.”

The virus, which causes COVID-19, has hit older people especially hard in the United States and abroad.

Bacharach noted that federal emergency legislation related to work leave and other employment areas will further complicate the situation from a legal perspective.

“When you do things in a hurry, it’s not always thought out,” Bacharach said. “How this (emergency legislation) will mesh with the existing laws is a mystery.”

In response to businesses’ many questions, some law firms have posted dedicated pages on their websites about responding to COVID-19 and offering legal services.

Ballard Spahr LLC has a COVID-19 resource center that lists contacts for each practice area and explains how the coronavirus could affect businesses.

Douglas Fox, a Ballard Spahr partner who works in the firm’s Baltimore office, said a big emphasis has been placed on moving companies’ meetings to a virtual format, a move that has some legal implications. In some states — though not Maryland — the law does not permit annual shareholders’ meetings to be held virtually, Fox noted.

He added that some clients have seen their business transactions delayed as the virus spreads.

“Whenever you get into this kind of havoc and uncertainty, the wheels start to wobble a little bit and people get nervous,” Fox said.

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