Kirby Farris & Jessica Zorn answer your legal questions about how COVID-19 impacts you and your community. Check back regularly for updates.
Last update: March 30, 2020
Can I expect a stimulus check?
If you are single, you filed taxes for 2018 and you made less than $99,000.00 per year, then you will probably receive a stimulus check after Congress passed the CARES Act last week. Individuals who made less than $75,000.00 in 2018 will receive $1,200.00 (and for every $100 you made over that threshold; your check will be reduced by $5).
If you are married, you and your spouse filed taxes for 2018 and you collectively make less than $150,000.00, then you can also expect a stimulus check for you and your spouse.
People who owe child support will not receive stimulus checks. Check with an accountant to make sure you qualify.
Are my student loans affected by the CARES Act?
Yes. Not only has your interest rate plummeted to zero, but the national CARES Act passed last week says that student loans do not have to paid for six months. This delay applies only to federally-held student loans. Contact your loan servicer to find out whether your April payment will be required, but by May most providers will have stopped collecting from you.
What was the purpose of Governor Ivey’s March 27, 2020 Order suspending public gatherings?
Even though big urban areas of Alabama were already taking city-wide and county-wide precautions to keep everyone inside and safe, the smaller rural counties had less cases of the virus and therefore less guidelines on how to social distance and prevent the spread of COVID-19. On March 27, Governor Ivey signed an Order of the State Health Officer making it mandatory everywhere in the State for non-essential businesses to close their doors and events with more than ten people to be cancelled.
How is the coronavirus affecting my case with your firm?
If you are injured and currently treating for your injuries, your case is not expected to be delayed. Please keep talking to and seeing your doctors so that you can start to heal, and we will continue to track your progress as you are treated. Remember to take extra precautions when going into a medical facility, like washing your hands or keeping your hands away from your face.
If our office is currently ordering your medical bills and records, it is possible that your case could be slightly delayed. We have a dedicated team of people who communicate with health care providers to get copies of your records and bills, but many doctors’ offices are overwhelmed and therefore it may take a little extra time to compile all of your records.
If your case is currently being negotiated with an insurance company, you should not expect delays at this time. Our office is open for business, and many insurance adjusters are working from home to evaluate and investigate your claim. Negotiations have not been stalled by the coronavirus.
Lastly, if your case is currently in litigation, you can probably expect some delay. Alabama courts were closed state-wide, so hearings and trials have had to be postponed. Many lawyers are opting to cancel or reschedule depositions. However, written discovery and subpoenas are being issued like normal, so we may still need to contact you about your case. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to your lawyer.
I cannot pay my rent or my mortgage because I lost my job due to the COVID-19 outbreak. What should I do?
The first step is to contact your landlord or mortgage provider to explain the situation to them. Some landlords may work with you considering the unusual situation, and many mortgage carriers have forbearance programs for people who are experiencing temporary financial hardship.
If you own a federally-backed mortgage, the CARES Act stops the mortgage holder from foreclosing on you until May 17, 2020. It also gives you the right to request a forbearance – or a temporary hold – on paying your mortgage, whether you’re behind on your payments or not. The temporary hold on payments will last 180 days, and you can request an extra 180 days after that. Importantly, the forbearance will not affect your credit score.
Alabama law has changed recently to allow more people to file for unemployment. You can apply if you lost your job (even temporarily) due to the outbreak. Apply by going to the Alabama Department of Labor website, but go to the site early – it has been overwhelmed with applicants in the last two weeks.
There are resources around Birmingham that can help you if you live locally. United Way can connect you with organizations that can help with utilities and food so that you can save more money for rent. When the Jefferson County Civil Courthouse opens to the public again, the Volunteer Lawyers group hosts a free legal clinic once per week to help people who are being foreclosed upon or who have other legal issues caused by the pandemic.
The county and state health departments have issued regulations limiting gatherings of more than 25 people. Is violating a health department order an actual crime or are these just guidelines?
Violating a state health department order is a crime in Alabama. The state health department orders were adopted as emergency rules by the Alabama State Health Officer, which makes the orders enforceable by statute (Ala. Code § 22-2-14). Hosting or attending a gathering of 25 people or more, where people cannot stand 6 feet apart, is a misdemeanor punishable by fines of $25-$500 per day.
Do salaried workers still get paid during shutdowns? Are hourly workers entitled to be paid?
Not necessarily. If you are on a salary, your employer must pay you for the full day if you work any part of that day (from home or in the office). If the business is shut down completely, and you as a salaried worker cannot work any part of that day, then you may be required to use sick/medical/vacation leave in order to be paid for that day.
Hourly workers will likely not be paid during shutdowns. An employer is not required to pay an hourly worker if that hourly worker is not working.
Importantly, Alabama is an at-will employment state; employers can fire anyone at any time for any reason as long as that person is not in a protected class (based on age, race, religion, disability, etc.). If you are a salaried or an hourly worker and your employer is doing something to help you get through the shut downs – like giving you paid sick leave or saving your job for when the pandemic is over – then the employer is doing that voluntarily to help you.
How do the school closings affect my custody agreements for my kids?
Custody agreements are governed by the specific order entered in your case, so any questions would be answered by reading the official custody order entered when the agreement was made. Although no official orders have been issued in Alabama, higher courts in other states have issued some guidance on how orders will be interpreted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, in Tennessee, the school calendar will control custody (i.e. if you have your kids for spring break, but the break is extended because of the virus, then you still have to give the kids to the other parent at the end of the week because the school calendar controls). The best thing to do is to contact your family law attorney and ask how your custody agreement would be interpreted if a problem arises.
Will workers’ compensation insurance cover me if I catch the virus at work?
It depends upon how the exposure occurred. To get the benefit of workers’ compensation benefits, you need to prove that you were injured during active employment. It is very difficult to prove that you definitively caught the virus at work (and not at the grocery store or at a gas pump, for example). However, medical workers may have a stronger case to gain workers’ compensation insurance benefits because their job involves likely mandatory exposure to the virus.
I feel like my neighbors are not taking the virus seriously, and they keep hosting parties. If my elderly mother gets sick, can I sue my neighbors for failing to follow the health department regulations?
Whenever a civil lawsuit is filed for damages, you must prove (1) that your neighbors had a duty to act reasonably to protect you, (2) that they breached that duty and acted unreasonably, and (3) that your mother got sick as a result.
In these uncertain times, people likely do have a duty to follow state law and avoid large gatherings. It is also pretty clear that they breached that duty by continuing to hold parties of more than 25 people. Although it may be difficult to prove your mother got sick as a result of the parties, you’d have a stronger case if your mother was completely quarantined and the only interaction, she had with the public was your neighbor’s parties. Talk to a personal injury lawyer who offers free consultations if you believe you or a family member got sick due to the negligence of someone else. During this epidemic, the entire public has a responsibility to take reasonable measures to contain the novel coronavirus.
I am away from my office because of a temporary shutdown, but I cannot pay my bills. What can I do?
File for unemployment. The State of Alabama has relaxed regulations on unemployment benefits because of the coronavirus epidemic. If you are legally quarantined by a doctor, your employer shut down because of the epidemic, or you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, then you are entitled to apply for your full income up to around $550 per week. If you are away from work because you are caring for a family member with COVID-19, then you may also apply for benefits of 2/3 of your income up to $200 per week.
Other restrictions on unemployment benefits have been lifted, too. There is no “waiting period” before you apply, and you are no longer required to prove that you are actively looking for work while you are receiving benefits.
You can apply for unemployment benefits on the Alabama Department of Labor website but start early and stay patient because the website has been overloaded with requests in the past week. Some reports indicate that it has taken members of the public seven or eight hours to complete the application due to website issues.
As of March 23, 2020, there is a potential third stimulus package being negotiated in Congress to help individuals while they are laid off. The stimulus package may have additional measures to help you, like individual or family payments in cash, slight increases in social security payments, breaks in payroll taxes or relief from student loan payments. Details on this stimulus package are unknown and nothing is guaranteed, but there is potentially more help coming on the federal level.
While you’re waiting for relief, talk to your mortgage provider, landlord, or other company collecting a bill. Many businesses have introduced measures to help customers who cannot afford to stay current on their bills.
If my child’s day care closes down, am I still responsible for paying my child’s tuition?
Each day care has a different contract with their parents, so the answer to this question can be found in your initial contract with the day care. Generally, however, day cares have the right to continue to charge during closings that are outside of the day care’s control. Most day cares are small, local businesses in Alabama and continuing to pay tuition will not only help your local community, but it will also guarantee your child’s spot when the epidemic is over, and it will help ensure that there is a day care to return to.
I had a contract with a customer, but I couldn’t perform my duties because of the coronavirus. Does the customer still have to pay me?
Contract questions are always governed by the terms of contract; read the wording carefully and focus on any portions of the contract that address cancellations (whichever party had to cancel for whatever reason).
Generally, when someone cannot perform under a contract because of an unpredictable event or a new regulation prohibiting performance, then legally there was an “act of God” (i.e., natural disaster, epidemic) or “mutual mistake” (i.e., you both assumed beaches would be open) that cancels the contract. If a contract is cancelled, you are excused from performing your end of the contract, but the other party is also excused from paying you. Non-refundable fees are still generally non-refundable, but most contracts will provide for some sort of refund to a customer if a contract is not completed. Talk to a business, personal injury or contract lawyer if you have more specific questions.
I run a small business in Birmingham and the pandemic is hitting my business hard. What are my options?
You are not alone in struggling to keep your business running. The City of Birmingham Director of Finance said that the City is expected to lose $9 million in revenue over the next four months due to the virus affecting local small businesses.
This question is best saved for a business or financial advisor, but from a legal perspective you may want to keep an eye on Major Woodfin’s proposed Birmingham Strong initiative. It’s a large fund intended to help offset losses and provide low-interest loans to small businesses up to $25,000.00 to help them stay afloat during these uncertain times.
To give feedback on the Birmingham Strong initiative before it is put into place, please visit the Birmingham Strong website.
I received a call about getting a coronavirus test in exchange for my Medicare number. Am I at risk of getting scammed or hacked?
Yes. The coronavirus epidemic has opened the door for scammers to try to gain access to your personal information, and they are particularly targeting senior citizens. Scams are showing up in form of phone calls pretending to be a hospital, fake charities, government imposters, and even purported “door-to-door” testing in exchange for social security numbers. Do not fall for these scams. If you feel like you need to get tested, call your healthcare provider and make an appointment at a certified testing site. As of March 22, 2020, there are two active testing sites in Jefferson County: UAB and Ross Bridge Medical Center.