The reopening of child care centers and schools—nice options to have again for attorneys with young children—won’t necessarily induce law firms, with offices shuttered since mid-March, to reopen any sooner.
Child care, though, is one of several factors driving the decision to have staff move back to offices, say a handful of firms surveyed by the Law Journal on Monday.
“Among a variety of factors we are considering are the child care needs and circumstances of our Genova Burns team, whether it is day care, the opening of schools or other pre-COVID-19 norms for household support,” said Angelo Genova, co-founder, managing partner and chairman of Genova Burns in Newark, in an email.
“Reopening our traditional office work space will be fraught with challenges on both sides of the equation,” said Genova. “We intend to be mindful of the concerns and needs of our employees not only upon their return to the office, but also aware of the support infrastructure available or absent to them in their households.”
Genova echoed many of the same concerns raised by other firms interviewed on Monday.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on May 29 signed Executive Order No. 149, allowing the reopening of child care centers on June 15, organized sports on June 22, and youth day on July 6, provided they comply with COVID-19-specific health and safety standards.
“In order to continue our momentum in restarting New Jersey’s economy, we must prepare our workforce to return to their jobs by ensuring a continuum of care for their children,” Murphy said in the May 29 release.
John Fanburg at Brach Eichler, which went fully remote with its staff of 170, including 78 attorneys, on March 17, said his Roseland firm was also taking the cautious approach.
“There are a number of moving parts and child care is an issue to be addressed, but there are many others as well,” Fanburg, managing partner and leader of two practice groups, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think that is the driving force of the decision to reopen.”
“I believe the first issue is, can we create a safe environment for our staff? That is the No. 1 consideration,” said Fanburg.
Day care centers, youth camps and athletic activities had been shuttered since March 25 as part of a public health and state of emergency declaration by Murphy on March 9 in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, as means to contain its spread through social-distancing guidelines.
“I think in the coming weeks, I will put together and finalize a back-to-office protocol, which coincidentally, we reviewed with all of our partners this morning to get their thoughts and recommendations,” Fanburg said Monday.
“Everybody’s philosophical viewpoint is similar: We want a safe environment for everyone. We are waiting for the governor. We want to be proactive, and the protocols we haven’t yet finalized—but will at the end of the week—will provide a level of confidence. So when the governor gives the green light, we will be ready to transition back into the office.”
As the state’s reopening accelerates in the coming weeks, Genova said, “it’s all about balance and communication, two key ingredients to our dialogue with our team.”
The New Jersey State Bar Association has put together a COVID-19 task force headed by Christine Amalfe of Newark-based Gibbons. The group will provide guidelines on safe office reopenings, among other pandemic-related issues, as part of the Law Firm Reopening Guidance Committee that’s set to begin its work this week.
“We will definitely be considering this issue as part of that process,” said NJSBA past president Thomas Prol, a partner at Sills Cummis & Gross in Newark, of child care centers resuming.
For smaller firms, such as Fredson Statmore Bitterman in Bloomfield, the recent directive by Murphy has no impact on its reopening.
The firm has two partners and three associates, all of whom have been required to be at the office at least on a part-time basis throughout the pandemic “due to practicality concerns,” according to partner Lance Bitterman.
“This will not impact our law firm’s returning date,” Bitterman said. “We continue to monitor the situation on a week-by-week basis. We have limited in-office staff with remote work available, which luckily has allowed my staff members flexibility at home while maintaining social distancing in [the] office.”
“I feel most firms have implemented plans like ours which allow enough flexibility for those with children to work remotely at the very least on a part-time basis,” added Bitterman. “However, I certainly think that this will be helpful to those with small children who are unable to work remotely on a part-time basis and/or feel they can’t perform their daily job duties efficiently from home.”
After weeks of inertia, it appears the state is now on course to reopen in planned stages.
Murphy announced the state would soon be entering stage two. The announcement came as mass protests were being staged nationally, including in New Jersey, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody on Memorial Day. Some protests, including Miami, New York and Philadelphia, turned violent, with riots and looting of store fronts, with many wearing face coverings to combat the coronavirus at the same time.
New Jersey ended maximum restrictions and moved to stage one on May 18, which reopened state parks, golf courses, boardwalks and beaches.
Stage two will include resuming outdoor dining for restaurants and indoor, nonessential retail on June 15, according to a release from the Governor’s Office on Monday. Starting June 22, barber shops and salons will reopen.
The reopenings will be guided by strict protocols from the New Jersey Department of Health, and the governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission and complementary advisory councils.
Following this month’s reopenings, Murphy said, the state will work toward the gradual opening of personal care facilities, gyms, and health clubs, at reduced capacities as stage two progresses.
The governor also recently announced that Atlantic City’s nine casinos could reopen as early as the Fourth of July weekend, after being closed for more than two months and sidelining over 20,000 casino workers.