This month marks the one-year anniversary of when Pine Tree Legal Assistance shifted to a ‘work from home’ environment in response to the pandemic. However, it wasn’t until I looked back at old emails that I realized that most of this transition happened over 15 workdays, starting from my first email referencing coronavirus on February 27 until March 16 when we closed our offices to the public and encouraged folks to begin working from home.
There was no existing blueprint for how to do this; our success is a tribute to the incredible commitment of staff at a time when all of them already had full-time jobs. Our IT staff mobilized to review and adapt our computer and phone systems to function away from the office, while others quickly began tracking down and ordering protective gear and equipment (including a LOT of hand sanitizer) for local offices. We shifted our longstanding intake system out of six local offices and into 12+ home locations, allowing us to continue providing assistance to Mainers desperate for answers during these unprecedented times.
A team approach kept agency partners informed about pending changes to our operations, and we expanded phone hours to compensate for the loss of walk-in service. What began as a suggestion, quickly became a requirement for all staff to work from home, except for designated essential workers in each office willing to handle mail and keep program systems operational for the rest of us. It took three months before some restoration of staff in local offices (under strict COVID protection policies) was possible.
There was no time to gather as a program to brainstorm ideas and solutions, to provide detailed trainings or coordinate in-person check-ins and reassurance. It would have been understandable if people stepped away to cope with their own and family member stressors. Instead, attorneys and paralegals rose to the new challenges and continued to provide help to low-income Mainers. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work stopping illegal lockouts, securing protection from abuse, providing counsel and advice to people on old and new issues such as the IRS Stimulus checks, unemployment comp benefits. We all pitched-in creating and posting client ed updates specific to COVID-19 on our websites. Our administrative staff both helped with program wide changes and continued work behind the scenes on old and new administrative requirements. Amidst the uncertainty and difficulty, we saw some notable bright spots including the onboarding of new staff, virtual office lunches, and plenty of sharing of photos of pets in our new work from home set ups.
We are getting closer to that moment when Pine Tree Legal Assistance can once again return to “normal,” with the assurance that we will continue to fight for our clients, despite the challenges we may continue to face. And in the meantime, the snow has almost disappeared, bulbs are pushing up leaves in my garden, and red-winged blackbirds and spring warblers have arrived – all promising signs of better times to come.
-Nan Heald, Executive Director