In April of 2020, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid received 8,847 calls and logged over 900 intakes – almost triple the usual volume for a month.
In February, well before the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Minnesota, Executive Director Drew Schaffer and his team began to carefully monitor not only the virus, but also the economic impact. As the public health emergency evolved and public guidance lagged behind the growth of the pandemic, they realized the particular vulnerability of the communities Legal Aid serves. The board and management took decisive action to protect staff, clients, and community partners.
Legal Aid closed its physical offices the week of March 16. Within a week, all functions moved to a virtual environment. Legal Aid’s information technology team worked with operations to move intake, support, and all client services to remote operations.
At the same time, attorneys in all units began preparing for the legal complications to come. The first wave of cases focused on access to stable housing and healthcare. Minnesota’s March 2020 school closures and stay-at-home order brought a spike in family law and domestic violence questions, along with concerns about equal access to education and public information. The Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC) turned attention to the rights of vulnerable adults in facilities around the state.
Rapid changes to public policy and benefits brought a surge in calls about CARES stimulus checks and unemployment insurance. Legal Aid’s Low-Income Tax Clinic is the only agency in the state that is helping people navigate the IRS website to apply for their stimulus checks. The benefits unit has shifted to helping workers apply for unemployment benefits.
“Our biggest challenge is to stay positive,” says Intake Coordinator Luci Russell. “The pandemic is magnifying problems we were seeing before, and the need is overwhelming. We’re honored to work for an organization that responds so quickly, and we appreciate being able to provide help in this uncertain time. But the need is so much bigger than we can possibly meet.”
On the informational front, Legal Aid’s State Support team added a COVID-19 resource page to www. lawhelpmn.org. on March 13. In just a few weeks, in cooperation with legal experts around the state, State Support created 18 new fact sheets to address clients’ most urgent questions, translated them into multiple languages, and put the word out on social media channels. The work is ongoing, with high traffic on the website and ever-rising requests for information.
Then on May 25, George Floyd was killed by police officers in south Minneapolis, and everything changed again. The city responded explosively. In the aftermath, new food and pharmacy deserts, damaged housing, and closed businesses weigh most heavily on client communities. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues. The communities Legal Aid serves will be looking at the economic impact for years to come.
With a continued minimal presence in physical offices, Legal Aid continues to field a high volume of calls, disseminate public information, and advocate for client communities at local and state levels.
“It is Legal Aid’s desire, privilege, and duty to continue our fierce advocacy and stand with the communities that have suffered so much loss,” says Schaffer. “Pro bono support and financial contributions from the private bar – both local and out-of-state – has been especially heartening over the past weeks. We’re trying to keep a jump ahead of ever-changing circumstances, and we appreciate the support of the legal community.”