COVID-19 Blog Series

Remembering Willowbrook during the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Grace Terry

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

NEW YORK, United States — As the COVID-19 Pandemic continues, the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) continues to face a worsening staffing crisis. In the final months of 2021, in the Central NY region alone, the state temporally suspended nine group homes. OPWDD has stated that the “temporary consolidation of group home is to maintain quality care and workplace conditions”. The low wages of the direct support staff (DSPs) at these facilities are at the heart of the crisis and legislators recognize this ongoing problem has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Willbrook building as it stands today in Staten Island, New York. Photo courtesy of Untapped New York.

“The current staffing crisis recalls an earlier incident that happened in New York State that made its way in federal court.”In 1972, a television reporter aired graphic footage from inside the Willowbrook State School, an institution designed to house children with intellectual disabilities. At its highest population, the institution housed 6,200 individuals in a building designed for 4,000 residents while drastically understaffed. This led to two class-action lawsuits, and the family members of the affected individuals sought injunctive relief to improve conditions, including hiring more staff.  The Eastern District Court of New York held that plaintiffs’ right to protection from harm in a state institution had been violated and granted this injunctive relief. This case set a precedent for the requirement of humane and ethical treatment of individuals who use these types of intuitions.

In NYS ARC, Inc v. Rockefeller (1973), it was noted that the number of ward attendants was incredibly low and that the lack of competitive salaries was a factor. In the facilities’ dayrooms, the staffing ratio was 1 staff member for every 15 residents. The 1964 American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD) standards required ratio of 1:5 for the first shift, 1:7 for the second shift, and 1:15 for the third shift at this facility. This serious understaffing caused hazardous conditions for the “health, safety, and sanity” of the residents. This included over 1,300 reports of injury, fights, patient assaults, and abuse.

The Court in NY ARC found a right to protection from harm through criminal law. When individuals are confined under criminal law, a tolerable living environment is guaranteed by law. The Court went further and held that OPWDD facility conditions are held to a higher standard, as residents in these facilities are not being constitutionally punished. The Court did not give an exhaustive list of rights, but it did note there is support for relief for violating that standard.

The appalling examples of mistreatment in the Willowbrook institutional facility led to the residents being placed in group homes, less restrictive, community-based facilities. The Court declared the department’s new goal should be to “ready each resident…for life in the community at large.” OPWDD and its provider agencies have since recognized that smaller group home designs are more effective and have transitioned from primarily using large institutions to group homes. These facilities have small staff to resident ratios, and a maximum capacity of 14 unrelated individuals per facility.

As of December 2021, OPWDD has stated that 57 group homes have been closed. The closures require group homes to be consolidated, increasing resident numbers without increasing staffing. As the Court stated in NYS ARC, appropriate staffing levels in required to ensure protection from harm. We need immediate action on behalf of our elected officials to rectify the staffing crisis and guarantee individuals utilizing State services are protected from harm.

For further information, please see:

CNY Central – “A workforce shortage of crisis proportions” impacting loved ones at New York group homes – 6 Dec. 2021

Disability Justice – The Closing of Willowbrook

Lohud. – Amid staffing crisis, pleas for Hochul to help New Yorkers with developmental disabilities – 5 Jan. 2022

The New York Times – Beatings, Burns and Betrayal: The Willowbrook Scandal’s Legacy – 21 Feb. 2020

The New York Times – 2 Suits Call for Eventual Phase Out of Willowbrook – 18 Mar. 1972

News 10 NBC – News10NBC Investigates: NYS group homes temporarily close as OPWDD tries to fill 537 job vacancies – 30 Nov. 2021

News 10 ABC – Officials talk staffing crisis closing group homes statewide – 22 Dec. 2021

Timeline –Willowbrook, the institution that shocked a nation into changing its laws – 15 Jun. 2017

United States District Court, E. D. New York – New York St. Ass’n for Retard. Child., Inc. v. Rockefeller – 10 Apr. 1973

Canada Terminates Collection and Reporting of COVID-19 Cases in Schools While Texas Governor Bans Mask Mandates in Schools

By: Jessica Senzer

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

NORTH AMERICA — On December 30, 2021, Ontario’s s Ministry of Education announced that it will no longer collect or report data of new COVID-19 infections starting in 2022. Before this change, the Ministry of Education collected COVID-19 data, including weekly case numbers from school boards. Education Minister Stephen Lecce stated that this was done partially because “schools are literally some of the safest places in our community…”

Texas students in school. Photo courtesy of Texas Tribune.

However, this decision was not well-accepted among all Canadians. In fact, in a statement, New Democratic Party Education Critic Marit Stiles said that this action “is going to hurt kids, families, and education workers.” Decisions that reduced COVID-19 protections have been unaccepted in the past, particularly by disabled communities. Canada’s disabled community will likely take issue with the Ministry’s new announcement.

On August 11, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott passed an Executive Order that prohibited school districts and charter schools from enforcing mask mandates-the Texas governor loosened COVID-19 protections in the state. Like in Canada, this decision was met with much citizen dissatisfaction.

Less than a week after the Executive Order was passed, Disability Rights Texas and Winston & Strawn LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14 disabled child plaintiffs, claiming, among other things, that the Order puts students with disabilities at great risk by depriving them of in-person education in a safe environment.

Disabled students in Canada will likely have similar concerns. Since the Ministry of Education is no longer collecting or reporting data on COVID-19 infection rates, students, disabled or not, will not know how many students, faculty, and staff, have, have been exposed to or have symptoms of COVID-19. This change could pose problems for students with various disabilities, including those that lead to a compromised immune system or anxiety.

In the Texas lawsuit, one plaintiff had ADHD, growth hormone deficiency, and asthma. She claimed she was at greater risk of serious illness because she needed to participate in in-person instruction but constantly had to worry about being exposed to COVID-19 at school. Canadian schoolchildren will face similar concerns if they do not know how many students, faculty, and staff have been exposed to, contracted, or have symptoms of COVID-19 due to government non-reporting of this data.

For further information, please see:

Disability Rights Texas- First Federal Lawsuit Filed Against Texas Governor on Mask Mandate Ban Says It Violates ADA, Section 504- 17 Aug. 2021

Global News- Ontario’s education ministry to stop collecting COVID case numbers from schools- 1 Jan. 2022

Toronto News- Ontario to stop collecting COVID-19 numbers from school boards, suspend reporting of cases – 31 Dec. 2021

IACHR Expresses Concern over the Human Rights of U.S. Sex Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Rebecca Buchanan

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On November 13, 2020, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a press release expressing concern over the human rights of U.S. sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cat Hollis, Founder of the Haymarket Pole Collective. Photo Courtesy of OPB.

The statement called for the U.S. government to strengthen its guarantees that individuals engaged in sex work would maintain their environmental, economic, social, and cultural rights, particularly during the pandemic’s containment and mitigation measures. The IACHR reiterated its belief that the discrimination and stigma facing sex workers in the United States pose a great risk to human rights and dignity and must be eliminated.

In its press release, the IACHR drew on information from reports indicating that sex workers throughout the United States have experienced increased violence, discrimination, and poverty during the pandemic. The stay-at-home orders and social-distancing measures instituted in most U.S. states have severely decreased opportunities for income through sex work, leaving these workers unable to cover the costs of basic needs and essential services. When reaching out for help, individuals engaged in sex work have been met with dwindling opportunities for housing, a lack of accessible healthcare, and exclusion from many social assistance programs.

Sex work is criminalized in most U.S. states, leaving sex workers dangerously excluded from State registration systems, social services, and necessary healthcare provisions. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these unstable conditions, leaving sex workers especially vulnerable to the virus and its larger effects. Businesses providing sex work were banned from receiving U.S. Small Business Administration Loans, which offered relief to businesses struggling as a result of the pandemic because of a stipulation excluding live performances or services of a “prurient sexual nature.”

Spurned by the U.S. government, sex workers and the businesses that employ them have been forced to turn elsewhere for assistance. The Haymarket Pole Collective, an Oregon based group that advocates for Black and Indigenous strippers and other strippers of color, recently received a grant from the Oregon Health Authority. The $600,000 grant will be used to fund relief and wellness kits which will include mail-in COVID-19 infection test kits, in addition to other necessities.

The work of the Haymarket Pole Collective addresses the impact of sex work discrimination on minorities, which are often disproportionally affected by situations of emergency or social unrest. In its statement, the IACHR expressed fears that minority populations within the sex work community face rapidly increasing prejudice and discrimination during the pandemic. In particular, the IACHR highlighted the uniquely hostile situation of transgender sex workers who often lack government identification documentation aligned with their gender identity or expression. As a result, transgender sex workers “are exposed to the dual denial of various essential services, including health.” The IACHR called on the U.S. to guarantee that transgender individuals receive adequate care policies and health services respectful of their gender identity. 

Finally, the IACHR noted the increased potential for police violence against sex workers as tensions around the pandemic continue to grow. The IACHR urged the U.S. to implement training programs for police officers, medical officials, and social services personnel regarding the social, economic, and human rights of sex workers. If properly implemented, these trainings could provide sex workers with greater access to social welfare systems and allow for more accurate reporting on situations of sexual slavery, labor exploitation, and human trafficking.

For further information, please see:

American Psychological Association – How COVID-19 impacts sexual and gender minorities – 29 June 2020

Amnesty International – Include Sex Workers in the COVID-19 Response – 28 July 2020

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – Press Release: IACHR calls on States to guarantee the human rights of women engaged in sex work in the context of the pandemic – 13 Nov. 2020

Oregon Public Broadcasting – Program providing COVID-19 relief to Oregon sex workers meets overwhelming demand – 14 Nov. 2020

U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health – COVID-19 Prevention and Protecting Sex Workers: A Call to Action – 14 Oct. 2020

The Beauty in Uncertainty

By: Melissa Berouty

3L at Syracuse University College of Law

What will the job market look like post-grad? Will online classes prepare me for the Bar exam? In March, questions like these began to spin through my mind. I was afraid of the uncertainty. I was afraid of what the future held for myself and my loved ones. I can now see the beauty in uncertainty.

This summer, I split my time between Columbia Law’s Eviction Moratorium Project and Harvard Law’s Worklife and Labor Program. I spent the summer researching the eviction crisis in Hawaii and Indiana. To my surprise, Hawaii led the nation in homelessness rates. Daily, I read devastating testimonies of families fearing eviction as moratoriums lifted around the United States.

Additionally, I researched worker’s rights in various industries. I learned about workplace conditions and safety, which were evidently dwindling in the face of COVID-19. I read stories of employees being furloughed or fired as businesses had no choice but to shut their doors.

It was humbling work, to say the least. I spent most of my summer quarantined in Florida with my best friend’s family. While yes, it would have been nice to be back home in California with my family, not once did I fear not having a roof over my head as millions across the United States were. I did not face the uncertainty of whether I would have a bed to sleep on at night or a warm meal on the table for dinner. For so many, housing is a symbol of security and stability. Without it, where would you be? It is a necessity of life— a human right.

While I worried about obtaining summer employment, employees significantly more qualified than me lost their jobs. As I conducted my work at the kitchen table with my best friend’s dog laying at my feet, essential workers’ put their lives at risk while being offered inadequate workplace protections. Before COVID-19 and our living rooms actually becoming our offices, many spent more time in their respective workplaces than their actual homes. A workplace should feel like a second home. Safe and healthy working conditions, a globally recognized human right, should be a non-negotiable.

While my fears of uncertainty were valid and justified, they were a product of a privileged space. After work, I logged off my computer and tuned back into “my reality.” My reality was secure employment, a roof over my head, and good health. My reality was extra time. Time I used to work out, to laugh with family and friends, and to try my hand at baking rosemary bread. During this pandemic, not everyone could simply log off and carry on with their days. Around the United States and beyond, peoples’ realities were the topics we law students researched.

In law school, I have been guilty of reading cases, extracting the rule, and moving on. I try my best to humanize the parties, but this can get lost in the mundane task of outlining. There are people behind every case, who have stories. Stories that both you and I can relate to. Stories that even on my worst day, I could never imagine experiencing.

This summer, my employers cared about these stories. Of course, I researched the law, but I also researched the impact of the law on the most vulnerable and I am better for it. Just because your reality is fortuitous, does not mean everyone is so lucky. Just because you feel as if an issue does not touch your world, does not mean it is nonexistent. Take a step out of your bubble, wearing a mask of course, and look at the world around you. What can you do to make it better? A consideration as simple as this, I firmly believe would make our world a better place.

Living Life on Zoom: An Interview with Kevin Belbey

By: Nadia Abed & Melissa Berouty 

3Ls at Syracuse University College of Law

As an agent at The Montag Group, Kevin Belbey represents sports broadcasting clients from national networks to local markets. His clients include play-by-play announcers, analysts, radio hosts, writers and reporters. Kevin is a graduate of Syracuse University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, his Master’s Degree in New Media Management from Newhouse and his Juris Doctor from Syracuse University’s College of Law.

He currently serves on several Syracuse boards including the Syracuse University Law Alumni Association, The Newhouse 44, and the Generation Orange Leadership Council. In March of 2017, Kevin was named to Front Office Sports’ “Rising 25” list of up-and-coming sports business professionals. In September 2019, Kevin was the recipient of the Generation Orange Award by his alma mater, an award recognizing a young alumnus making major contributions in their field of work.  

How did you become interested in the industry you currently work in?

BELBEY: Honestly, it was trial and error. I spent a lot of time researching online, going to different networking events, and seeing guest speakers on campus. Some of the best advice I ever got was “the key to figuring out what you want to do is first figuring out what you do not want to do.” I had so many conversations with media attorneys, broadcasters, trial attorneys, and agents in different fields. With every conversation, I really tried to learn what their day-to-day was like to see if it was something that might interest me long term.

I tried to collect as much knowledge as I could. After doing so, I looked to get first-hand experience. While in law school, I did the Washington D.C. externship program and interned with the FCC. This position led me to intern with CBS in their legal department. These two opportunities in law school were highly formative in leading me towards what I wanted to do.

How has the sports media industry been impacted by the pandemic?

BELBEY: It has been totally rocked. For a while, there had been no sports. During this time, so many of our clients were sitting on their couch watching Tiger King like the rest of us. They want to work, but when there are no games or stories to report on, it becomes difficult.

Obviously, there are more pressing things going on in the world with more cases and tragic deaths. It’s important to keep that in perspective. A lot of our clients are paid per game and have filed for unemployment after going a span of five months with no games. It’s been a whirlwind and something that is evolving daily. I think our industry is truly taking it day by day.

You mentioned the unemployment rate, which continues to soar. Is this something that has impacted your industry hard?

BELBEY: It’s been very tough. In our business, summer is a very healthy time and full of new job opportunities. Outside of baseball, summer is typically an off time for sports. Basically, at this time, networks would be preparing for sports to come back. Right now, there a lot of changes in terms of talent, new shows being developed, and plans being made for the fresh seasons. Typically, the summer is when we are negotiating a large number of contracts. However, it’s been very quiet on the deals front as many of the networks do not want to offer contracts unless there is a guarantee there will be games.

Even for the people who still have their jobs, nearly everyone in our industry has taken pay cuts. On-air talent for FOX Sports, NBC Sports, ESPN, and NFL Network have all taken pay cuts to salaries that they have already agreed to. While they are voluntary, I think everyone is trying to be a team player and do the right thing.

With the world becoming increasingly more virtual, how has contract negotiation and general client interaction been for you?

BELBEY: We are pretty much living our life on Zoom these days. We have company meetings at 10:30 AM every morning where we provide updates on the deals we are working on, people we are talking to, and clients we are prospecting. At this point, I try to do as many Zoom calls as I can to get closer to the feeling of in-person interaction.

It is interesting to see different companies and organizations use different technology. For example, NBC sports are big Microsoft Teams people. We really are doing everything we can to make up for the lack of in-person interaction.

During the time that games were not being held, what was your concern and what were the concerns of your clients?

BELBEY: Networks are hesitant to make commitments right now. For the last five months, a lot of networks have been paying people to essentially not work. Right now, people who would usually have had new contacts by now are left waiting to see how the NCAA and these networks will operate moving forward. From there, we will be left with the question of where talent fits in.

Talent is being put on the back burner until everything else is figured out. This is tough. They have kids and families to support. Aside from the money, talent relies on the benefits particularly the health insurance during the pandemic as everyone else in the country has been. In this cloud of uncertainty, I give a lot of credit to our clients for being patient.

With more games expected to be televised, do you see an increase in the need for broadcasters?

BELBEY: I genuinely hope that is the case. I hope that this industry starts booming and there are more job opportunities. On the other hand, I can see a continued use of remote production. Typically, sports broadcasters are on sight at the stadium. Now, some games are being called out of the studio or even broadcaster’s own homes.

As we remain virtual in our day-to-day operations, we see the same thing happening with broadcasters. If this continues, it will actually lead to a decrease in jobs. If you are calling one college football game on the weekend and need to travel the day before and after, you are calling just one game. However, if you are just calling it out of your basement, maybe you can call two to three games in a weekend. This may lead to less opportunity and allow networks to save money.

What do you see the future of sports media looking like moving forward?

BELBEY: My hope is that we tread water and stay afloat for the next six to eight months. By then, hopefully, we will be discussing a vaccine, fans returning to stadiums, and the Olympics next summer. In the meantime, we as an industry just need to hang tight.

Is the new norm to have broadcasters conduct their work offsite?

BELBEY: The benefit for broadcasters that are on-site is that there are one to two other people in the radio booth with them. This allows them to practice social distancing. Before our broadcasters go back to work, they want to ensure that there is a health and safety plan. For our broadcasters on-site, they need to be provided with information like how they will get there and where will they stay. This then adds another question of whether the overnight amenities are safe and what is the health and safety plan inside the arena. Thankfully, overall, there are fewer people inside stadiums, so you are able to keep your distance.

Are these safety considerations accounted for contractually? If not, are these considerations that will come into play during contract negotiation moving forward?

BELBEY: I think networks have an inherent responsibility to offer broadcasters a safe work environment. However, this is definitely something that could change moving forward. One thing that we have seen in contracts more than ever is the phrase force majeure.  Frankly, this is something we always reviewed, but never really expected to carry this type of weight. Now, we are reading these clauses twenty times over given their weight.

Do you have any advice for law students trying to network during this time?

BELBEY: In law school and college, I would exchange emails and get on the phone with people in various industries. One thing I always knew was that I was not that memorable to them. There are so many emails and phone calls that are happening all day long. This makes it difficult for people to remember you. The best way to network is to grab lunch or a coffee. Obviously, you cannot do that right now, but what you can do is ask someone to grab coffee over Zoom. Honestly, if someone asked me to meet over Zoom six months ago, I would have thought it was weird. But today, this is the way we conduct our business. While there might be people that say no, I do believe face-to-face interactions are more memorable. I think this is a way you can stand out. This is what I would do.

At the end of the day, the vast majority of jobs are based on who you know, not just applying online. This is how I got my job. So, I would encourage law students to put themselves out there.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.