By Elizabeth Olson
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom turned to its philanthropic arm when Covid started to spread this year, aiming to support public interest lawyers in helping to tackle legal issues stemming from the pandemic.
The Skadden Fellowship Foundation funds more than two dozen fellows annually. They each spend two years at nonprofits that provide legal services otherwise out of reach for low-income people.
To address new, pandemic-era legal dilemmas in areas like worker safety, domestic violence and housing, the foundation added a new round of funding.
The foundation routinely awards such grants, called Flom Incubator Grants, named after former partner Joe Flom, twice yearly. Each provides $10,000 to support efforts to take on a variety of legal issues. The Covid-19 grants were a third round for 2020.
Big Law firms and their public interest activities have mobilized to address the legal challenges brought about or exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Efforts from the largest firms have ranged from remotely assisting undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children with renewing their immigration status, to helping an NFL team and its ownership group send an emergency shipment of protective masks from China to the U.S.
For one of the recent Flom grants, Jaribu Hill, founder and director of the Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights, won funding to start a phone bank canvass in communities across the Mississippi Delta. The object was to conduct wellness checks on workers, many of whom are in factory jobs that expose them to Covid-19 infection.
In addition, Hill is fielding programs to better communicate with workers about their rights when it comes to health and safety in the pandemic.
“We are putting crawlers across the bottom of cable channels that say things like, ‘Be Sure to Obey the 6-Foot Rule,’ to remind people to socially distance during this time,” said Hill, who is located in Greenville, Miss.
“In addition to phone banking, we had a billboard in Greenville to spell out what children need to know before they returned to physical school,” said Hill, who has also worked in the past as a teacher and labor organizer before earning her law degree and becoming a Skadden fellow.
The foundation funds also have gone to advocating with education authorities to make sure each child is provided a computer for schoolwork, she said.
“There are a lot of issues here because there are many low-wage workers in food processing, such as catfish and poultry factories, and in laundries, factories, and shipyards. Many make a minimum wage and 43% of the population lives in poverty,” she noted.
Covid-19 has hit workers in the area particularly hard, and a high percentage of victims have wound up hospitalized, she said.
Learning During Covid-19
Kathleen Rubenstein, the foundation’s executive director, said that the Covid-specific funds went to 28 recipients.
“The projects are in different phases. Some people are done and others, depending on what they are dealing with, are still gearing up,” Rubenstein said.
Oscar Lopez, at the East Bay Community Law Center, in Berkeley, Calif., is another recipient. He has directed the Skadden grant money to make sure students get access to adequate education.
Legal issues sparked by Covid are layered on top of other educational problems such as students who have been unable to resolve pending disciplinary proceedings that could hinder attending school.
With the closure of schools during the pandemic, student disciplinary issues were often left in limbo and needed someone to push to make sure they were resolved.
“The cases were from before schools closed down last March,” said Lopez. “We’ve been trying to resolve these outstanding issues so students can go to school with their peers.”
A number of cases settle, but because there is a patchwork of practices among schools, the cases take time and effort, he noted.
Other students, Lopez said, “are lagging behind because they have not yet received Chromebooks or hotspots. And distance learning is another area where students, particularly those with disabilities, need to have someone representing them so they don’t fall behind in school.”