Policy Matters – May 2020

Eòghann Renfroe May 07, 2020


Welcome to the May edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. A lot has happened since our last edition, which came out in early March, just as COVID-19 was beginning to first show up in New York. Empire Justice spent the month of March, as many of us did, trying to pivot to a new normal while keeping our organization on track. This edition we’ll be filling you in on what some of that work has looked like.


Tackling the Pandemic

Our policy team kept up on State budget advocacy while teaming up with members of our various legal practice groups, marketing & communications, and our crime victims team to work on creating a series of free legal resources for New Yorkers affected by the Coronavirus pandemic.

We created a COVID-19 Free Legal Resources webpage, which collects FAQs and guides on legal issues created or exacerbated by the pandemic, such as stimulus checks, paid leave, public benefits, unemployment benefits, health insurance, immigration, Social Security, and much more. We’re working hard to keep these resources up to date as processes and programs rapidly change, continue to create and publish additional resources, and translate resources into additional languages, such as Spanish and Mandarin.

Our legal teams are also busy. In addition to our regular services we have launched the Unemployment and Paid Leave Legal Help Line, which will help New Yorkers obtain expanded unemployment benefits and answer questions about new paid leave programs for low income working families and individuals.

It’s clear that COVID-19 is an unprecedented event across the globe. In New York State, over 300,000 people have contracted the virus, and over 18,000 have died. Over 1.5 million have lost their jobs since mid-March. People need help, and they need it badly. Free civil legal services can help unemployed folks get cash assistance and food to feed their families; help people in financial trouble to not lose their homes; help people who are being denied insurance coverage for necessary and often life-saving procedures to get their medical care covered.

We are proud to do our part in these trying times and to continue our mission to make the law work for all New Yorkers.


Budget Cuts Loom Weeks After Finalization

The State Budget passed at the beginning of April – lean, but in many ways promising, as many essential services made it through the process with mild or no cuts. However, part of the budget deal included a broad expansion of emergency powers for Governor Cuomo, which allows him to propose and institute rolling cuts in May, July of this year, and January of next year. Three weeks after the passage of the state budget, the first cuts were proposed by the Division of Budget.

Of the $10.1 billion in proposed spending cuts, $8.2 billion are targeted at “aid-to-localities,” an incredibly broad category that includes everything from public education, Medicaid, mass transit, and substance abuse services to free civil legal aid services such as those delivered by Empire Justice Center. These are services that New Yorkers will need now more than ever: navigating health insurance, unemployment benefits, medical debt, foreclosure prevention, Social Security benefits, and access to safety net and food assistance.

A chart on page 19 of the Division of Budget’s document reveals that the proposed cuts to social services could be as high as 38 percent. Such drastic measures will have a devastating impact on communities already hit the hardest by the pandemic.

The cuts proposed by the Division of Budget are deeply alarming for New Yorkers – whether they have been struggling for years, or have been suddenly thrust into instability by the Coronavirus pandemic. It is imperative that the financial cost of this pandemic is not bourn by the very people who have been and will continue to be most affected.


Social Security Benefits and COVID-19

The Federal government gave a 72-hour deadline for some of the poorest social security recipients who are also caring for a child to receive a $500 Coronavirus stimulus payment. Our Disability Advocacy Project (DAP) team worked hard to get the word to communities, and to extend the deadline through advocacy.


Housing and Foreclosure Protection During COVID-19 

WOOC’s Upstate Housing Correspondent, Michele Maserjian, spoke with Kirsten Keefe, senior attorney and Program Director for the Home Owner Protection Program (HOPP) about foreclosure assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can listen to the program here.


Transgender Rights

Empire Justice participated in this year’s virtual Transgender & Gender Nonconforming (TGNC) Advocacy Day on April 21, taking part in a Twitter Town Hall to increase awareness of legislation that will improve the lives of transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary New Yorkers. The Gender Recognition Act (A.3457-B/S.0056-B) is a comprehensive bill that will create streamlined and privacy-protective processes for transgender and nonbinary New Yorkers to update and obtain accurate identification documents – which makes it easier for obtain jobs, housing, health care, and safety.


Food and Health Insecurity During COVID-19

It’s clear that the threat and impact of the Coronavirus pandemic are falling disproportionately on those with low-incomes, especially those who are food or health care insecure. Senior attorney Saima Akhtar joined Amy Lowenstein for an informational briefing to over 1,500 on updates to key federal programs in response to COVID-19, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP).


Unemployment Benefits and Paid Leave

Employment attorney Peter Dellinger was interviewed on The Capitol Pressroom about the current processes for claiming unemployment insurance benefits. Peter explains the differences between the traditional unemployment benefits application process, what has been streamlined, and the expansion of benefits through the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

At the time of this interview, over 1.2 million New Yorkers had applied for unemployment benefits; at the same time last year, only 67,000 had applied. In addition, more New Yorkers than ever are in need of paid leave to deal with illness or to take care of sick family members, or to look after and help educate children who are no longer able to go to school. This unprecedented need is what led to the formation of our Unemployment and Paid Leave Legal Help Line, which launched last week. If you are in need of legal assistance on any of these issues due to the coronavirus pandemic, please call 800-724-0490 ext. 5827 to be connected with an attorney.


Thank You For Reading

If you’d like to keep up with our policy work, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or visit the Policy Central page on our website.

You can find all of our COVID-19 free legal resources on our website, and if you need help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.


The Empire Justice Policy Team