COVID-19 Updates and Policy Changes

Wait… what’s happening?

We are living in an unprecedented moment, trying to adjust to a situation that continues to evolve. Life in our community has completely changed in a matter of days—so much so that it’s been hard to keep track of everything that has happened.

We’re here to help.

As a champion for those in need, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is committed to serving our community during this pandemic and beyond. Anyone needing assistance can contact us by calling 704-376-1600 (Mecklenburg County), 800-438-1254 (Outside Meckelenburg County) or 800-247-1931 (Linea de Español).

You can find updates for how our offices are operating during COVID-19 here as well as a community resource guide for Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties.

Here is a list of developments our staff has been monitoring in relation to our work. Please note this list is constantly changing to reflect the latest updates. Check back often to find the most recent information.

Consumer Protection

From our Consumer Protection team: Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has been working with our state, local and national partners to help the most vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Advocacy Center continues to fight for vulnerable consumers to protect them from financial exploitation. In these uncertain times, our attorneys and paralegals can help protect you and your loved ones from scammers who want to make a quick buck.

People are understandably worried about losing their jobs, income, health care and the problems that will cause with every aspect of their financial lives from their ability to pay bills to the effect the crisis will have on their health and credit.  There are several bills working their way through Congress now to provide relief to consumers. As we get new information about new consumer legislation protecting and providing for consumers, we’ll post it here.

In the meantime, be cautious when dealing with people who promise something that sounds too good to be true. Some things to watch out for:

  1. Price gouging: From bare shelves to outrageous prices for basic products, people are trying to make a quick buck from the coronavirus crisis. If you think a merchant is price gouging, report the business to the N.C. Attorney General’s office. They can investigate and shut down any scammers, if necessary.
  2. Phony cures: scammers promise to sell you a product or service that will prevent or cure the coronavirus, or, offer to sell you a product they don’t have.
  3. Fake charities: Say they will donate to affected communities, but will pocket the money instead;
  4. Door-to-door sales: Be cautious of anyone who comes to your door offering to sell you something. Don’t sign anything presented to you by someone that contacts you first. Take your time to read any paperwork and let someone else review any document before you sign it.
  5. Bogus “official communications” emails from government agencies: These emails could say they are from federal and state governments, Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). These emails will have the look and feel of an official memo, and purport to contain “important information” or maps relating to the COVID-19 outbreak, in an attachment; or other calls to action that involve opening a file or clicking on a link.  Instead, the files or links lead to key-loggers, bogus web sites that try to capture personal information, or ransomware.
  6. “Coronavirus Tracker” Apps: These appear as an ad or link for a free download of a mobile app that claims to provide real-time updates of COVID-19 outbreaks, mapped against your location.  But instead of an app, the download contains a ransomware payload.

And, remember, if you fall behind on your mortgage, rent or other bills, there may be some relief available to you. Contact Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s Consumer Protection Program if you think you are being taken advantage of or need information about a consumer matter.

Student Loan Payments Deferred:  (March 20) The Trump administration announced that student loan payments can be stopped for 60 days with no accrued interest if the borrower will call and make a request from their loan servicer. Those who still want to make their payments can do so. These payments would apply directly to the principal balance, which may allow some borrowers to pay off their loan more quickly. Read more.

Home Preservation

Eviction and Foreclosure halted in N.C. courts: (March 20) North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cherie Beasley directed local courts to postpone most cases in district and superior court for at least 30 days beginning March 17, 2020. This includes halting evictions and foreclosures during this time of uncertainty. In keeping with a new order extending the postponement, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office has announced it will not enforce court-ordered evictions until April 17, 2020.

HUD Suspends all foreclosures for 60 days: (March 18) U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) authorized the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to direct mortgage servicers to halt all new foreclosure actions and suspend all foreclosure actions currently in process for homeowners with FHA-insured Title II Single Family forward and Home Equity Conversion (reverse) mortgages for the next 60 days. See HUD’s website for more information.

Guidance for homeowners with federally guaranteed mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: (March 18)

Fannie Mae Assistance Options for Homeowners Impacted by COVID-19

Fannie Mae’s guidelines for single-family mortgages:

  • Homeowners impacted by the emergency may request mortgage assistance by contacting their mortgage servicer;
  • Foreclosure sales and evictions of borrowers are suspended for 60 days;
  • Impacted homeowners are eligible for a forbearance plan to reduce or suspend their mortgage payments for up to 12 months;
  • Credit bureau reporting of past due payments of borrowers in a forbearance plan as a result of hardships attributable to the emergency is suspended; and
  • Homeowners in a forbearance plan will not incur late fees.

After forbearance, a servicer must work with the borrower on a permanent plan to help maintain or reduce monthly payment amounts as necessary, including a loan modification.

Through its Disaster Response Network, Fannie Mae also offers help to homeowners with a Fannie Mae-owned mortgage who are navigating the broader financial effects of this national emergency, including:

  • A needs assessment and personalized recovery plan;
  • Help requesting financial relief from insurance, servicers, and other sources; and
  • Web resources and ongoing guidance from experienced disaster relief advisors

Homeowners can find out if they have a Fannie Mae-owned mortgage and access to the Disaster Response Network here.

Homeowners can contact Fannie Mae directly at 1-800-2FANNIE (1-800-232-6643). Get more information about your options.

Freddie Mac Assistance Options for Homeowners Impacted by COVID-19

Freddie Mac’s guidelines for single-family mortgages:

  • Suspension of all foreclosure sales and evictions of borrowers living in homes owned by the company until May 17, 2020;
  • Expansion of its forbearance program, to incorporate additional impacted borrowers;
  • Ensuring payment relief by providing borrowers forbearance for up to 12 months;
  • Waiving assessments of penalties or late fees against borrowers;
  • Suspending the reporting of delinquency related to forbearance, repayment, or trial plans to credit bureaus;
  • Allowing servicers to offer borrowers additional loss mitigation options that are typically only enacted to address natural disasters, including loan modifications that give servicers options to provide payment relief or keep the payment the same post the forbearance period; and
  • Offering forbearance eligibility regardless of whether property is owner occupied, a second home or, an investment property.

These measures apply to borrowers who are unable to make their mortgage payments due to a decline in income resulting from the impact of COVID-19, regardless of whether they have contracted the virus.

Forbearance plans provide borrowers with payment relief for up to 12-months and suspend borrower late charges and penalties. It also suspends reporting to credit bureaus of past due payments of borrowers who are in a forbearance plan as a result of hardships attributable to this national emergency.

Borrowers experiencing financial challenges due to COVID-19 should contact their mortgage servicer to discuss Freddie Mac workout options. Get more information on Freddie Mac mortgage relief.

Community Stability

U.S. Census: The U.S. Census count is still underway though the U.S. Census Bureau has adjusted 2020 Census operations to accommodate participation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes include:

  • Self-Response deadline (online, mail, phone) has been moved to August 14.
  • Door-to-door counts by Census workers have been postponed. When the door-to-door count resumes, Census workers will not come to your door if you have already completed the count for your household.

Respondents are urged to respond to the count online if possible.

Updated Mecklenburg County Courthouse Operations Schedule: (March 26) English Español

CATS Service: (March 25) CATS will make modifications to transit service to accommodate the current demand. By operating modified service, CATS will continue providing the community access to essential daily needs, front-line jobs and medical services. All service will be FREE during this time.  These changes are effective until further notice. Read more here.

Unemployment Insurance Executive Order: (March 17) N.C. Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order to expand unemployment benefits for workers impacted by COVID-19. The order lifts some restrictions on unemployment benefits to help workers unemployed due to COVID-19 and those who are employed but will not receive a paycheck. Additionally, it adds benefit eligibility for those out of work because they have the virus or must care for someone who is sick.

For example, workers who lose income due to tips or scheduled work hours, but are still employed, would be eligible for benefits because of this Executive Order. Among other changes:

  • It removes the one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment payment for those workers who lose their jobs;
  • It removes the requirement that a person must be actively looking for another job during this time when many potential employers are closed and social distancing guidelines are in effect.
  • It allows employees who lose their jobs or, in certain cases have their hours reduced due to Covid-19 to apply for unemployment benefits.
  • It directs that employers will not be held responsible for benefits paid as a direct result of these COVID-19 claims.
  • It waives the requirement that people must apply for benefits in person; workers can apply for benefits online or by phone.

Read more here.

Public utilities, internet service will remain available to customers: (March 16) The N.C. Utilities Commission put out an order suspending service disconnections during COVID-19 outbreak to ensure residents maintain access to water, power and gas.

N.C. Courts delay cases 30 days: (March 16) North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cherie Beasley directed local courts to postpone most cases in district and superior court for at least 30 days beginning March 17, 2020. Exceptions include:

  • Domestic violence hearings for protective orders
  • Cases with trials already in progress
  • Cases where there is a constitutional or statutory right to an immediate hearing.

Read more here.

Mecklenburg Clerk of Court Adjusts Hours: (March 16) The Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court’s Office will reduce hours of operation and staff availability. They will be open to the public Monday through Friday, between 9 am and noon. This scheduled change will be in effect for at least the next 30 days. Read more here.

Healthcare Access & Public Benefits

From our Family Support & Health Care team: Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s Family Support and Health Care team is working to ensure family stability through fair access to vital healthcare and public services during this period of uncertainty.

We are particularly focused on the most vulnerable groups in our community who often do not have access to these services: children, seniors, people living with disabilities, immigrants and their families. Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is monitoring the situation to make sure residents continue to have uninterrupted access to benefits and healthcare during the COVID-19 outbreak. Anyone experiencing issues should contact us by calling 704-376-1600.

N.C. Medicaid Program expands access to telemedicine: (March 23) Medicaid is temporarily modifying its Telemedicine and Telepsychiatry Clinical Coverage Policies to better enable the delivery of remote care to Medicaid beneficiaries. In addition to telephone conversations and secure electronic messaging, the modifications will include the use of two-way real-time interactive audio and video to provide and support physical and behavioral health care when participants are in different physical locations. Read more here.

Health Insurance Navigator Services still available by phone: (March 18) The Advocacy Center’s Health Insurance Navigators are still available for phone appointments to help consumers understand their health coverage options and assist them with the following:

  • Marketplace applications (Affordable Care Act)
  • Medicaid applications
  • Food Stamp (SNAP) applications
  • Marketplace appeals
  • Medicaid denials/terminations
  • Issues accessing care through private insurance or Medicaid

Navigators can help people complete their applications online by phone.

To schedule a FREE appointment:

  • go online to ncnavigator.net, Local navigator appointments are available online under zip code 28204 listed as “Phone Appointment with Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.”
  • call the statewide appointments hotline 1-855-733-3711,
  • call our new Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy Navigator direct line at 980-256-3782.

Navigators are also available to assist clients needing to communicate with Mecklenburg County DSS, specifically with the Office of Consumer Advocacy, to help them address with any barriers they may be experiencing regarding access to healthcare or food stamps.

Qualifying for Health Insurance through Special Enrollment Periods during COVID-19: As a reminder, many individuals may qualify for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP) to enroll in Marketplace health coverage outside of Open Enrollment if they have had recently experienced any of the following:

  • marriage,
  • permanent move,
  • changes in immigration status,
  • release from incarceration,
  • adding a family member (birth, adoption, placement for foster care),
  • increase in income (from below 100% to over 100% of the Federal Poverty Level),
  • loss of coverage,

SEPs are generally life changes that effect your access to health coverage and enrollment must be done within 60 days of the change. Individuals interested in applying for Medicaid can do so all year around and do not need an SEP.

While our government and healthcare systems are expanding access to testing for the uninsured, enrollment in a Marketplace plan can cover any additional associated costs such as a hospitalization and provide peace of mind for consumers during this tense time.

Access to healthcare for immigrants and their families: (March 18)

According to the National Immigration Law Center, our national partner:

  • The Families First Act provides additional funding to pay for coronavirus testing for anyone who is uninsured. The funding will pay for testing at community health centers, outpatient clinics, and doctors’ offices.
  • Immigrants can continue to access services at community health centers, regardless of their immigration status, and at a reduced cost or free of charge depending on their income. However, people should call first to find out the availability of COVID-19 screening and testing. Health centers may do patient assessments over the phone or using telehealth.
  • Eligibility for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces has not changed.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently posted an alert clarifying that it will not consider testing, treatment, or preventive care (including vaccines if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 in a public charge inadmissibility determination, even if the health care services are covered by Medicaid.

Learn more from NILC.

N.C. requests waivers for Medicaid program: (March 18) The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has requested waivers from the federal government to ensure uninterrupted services for the state’s Medicaid beneficiaries. The waiver request includes measure to:

– streamline the enrollment process

– waive limits on access to hospital beds and lengths of stay in the hospital

– waive restrictions to expand alternatives to institutionalized care, such as in-home care services

Read more here.

Changes to N.C. food stamp certification periods: (March 18) The N.C. Office Economic and Family Services announced plans to extend the state’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) certification periods for all cases that have certification periods ending March 31 or April 30, 2020, with the exception of Simplified Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamp) cases. Automatic extension will alleviate the need for FNS households to leave their homes to mail or deliver their re-certification forms or to retrieve required verification, reducing potential exposure to COVID-19.

Mecklenburg County DSS offices closed to the public: (March 17) Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy just learned that Mecklenburg County is closing its Department of Social Services (DSS) offices to the public as of tomorrow, March 18, and will be conducting all business via telephone and mail.

At Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s urging, DSS has agreed to honor the date of phone calls as date of application for applicants, to not terminate benefits missed deadlines, to allow late appeals, and to post clear signage in front of their buildings outlining this information.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is monitoring the situation to make sure residents continue to have uninterrupted access to benefits during the COVID-19 outbreak. Anyone experiencing issues should contact us by calling 704-376-1600.

Immigration

From our Immigrant Justice Team: Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is open through the COVID-19 crisis and will continue to accept new immigration cases for representation.  Our focus continues to be on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and asylum cases, but we will consider other categories of immigration relief on a case-by-case basis.  Please call 800-247-1931 to determine whether we can assist you. 

Here is what we know about how the COVID-19 crisis will affect immigration matters in the near future:

Charlotte’s immigration court is closed: (March 19) The Charlotte Immigration Court is closed through April 10, 2020, which means that any hearings scheduled through April 10 are postponed.  It is unclear how and when hearings will be rescheduled. 

The Executive Office for Immigration Reviews has announced that the 800 toll-free number that individuals can normally can call to check for hearing information may not be updated and should not be relied upon.  The Advocacy Center is monitoring this situation and will update this page as soon as information becomes available.

ICE Check-Ins: (March 19)Individuals with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins should be contacted by an ICE officer to check in by phone—instead of in person—on their next scheduled report date.  The phone number to call for the Charlotte Enforcement and Removal Office is 843-746-2857.

USCIS Closes Field Offices: (March 18) United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has cancelled all routine in-person services.  The Charlotte Field Office will send notices to applicants and petitions with scheduled appointments and naturalization ceremonies impacted by the closure.  USCIS asylum offices will send interview cancellation notices and automatically reschedule asylum interviews.  USCIS will provide emergency services for limited situations.  To schedule an emergency appointment, individuals should contact the USCIS Contact Center. Read more.

El Centro de apoyo estará abierto durante la crisis de COVID-19 y seguirá aceptando nuevos casos de inmigración que requieran de representación. Nuestro enfoque seguirá siendo casos de Estatus de Inmigrante Juvenil Especial y casos de asilo, pero consideraremos otros tipos de casos inmigratorios dependiendo de cada caso.  Por favor llame a la línea de español ( 800-247-1931) para determinar si le podemos ayudar.

Esto es lo que sabemos sobre cómo la crisis del COVID-19 afectará asuntos de inmigración en el futuro cercano:

La Corte de Inmigración de Charlotte estará cerrada hasta el 10 de abril del 2020. Esto significa que todas las audiencias programadas para antes del 10 de abril se pospondrán. No está claro cómo o cuándo las audiencias serán reprogramadas. La Oficina Ejecutiva de Revisión de Casos de Inmigración ha anunciado que el número gratuito, al que normalmente puede llamar para averiguar información sobre su próxima audiencia, no va a estar actualizado y no debe confiar en la información que le dé. El centro de apoyo legal está monitoreando esta situación y vamos a actualizar esta página una vez la información correcta esté disponible.

Si tiene que registrarse con Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) debe ser contactado por un oficial de ICE para registrarse por teléfono – en vez de en persona – en su próxima fecha de reporte agendada. El número al que puede llamar para contactarse con la Oficina de Aplicación y Remoción de Charlotte es 843-746-2857.

Los Servicios de Ciudadanía e Inmigración de Estados Unidos (“USCIS”) ha cancelado todos los servicios de rutina en persona. La oficina de USCIS en Charlotte mandará notificación a todos los solicitantes con citas programadas y ceremonias de ciudadanía impactados por el cierre. Las Oficinas de USCIS de asilo mandarán notificaciones de cancelación de entrevistas y reprogramarán automáticamente las entrevistas de asilo. USCIS proveerá servicios de emergencia para situaciones limitadas. Para programar una cita de emergencia, debe comunicarse con el Centro de Contacto de USCIS. Lee mas

Tax Assistance

From our N.C. Low-Income Tax Clinic team: Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s North Carolina Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic is available to help taxpayers experiencing problems with the IRS, trying to understand changes to tax season and any other developments resulting from COVID-19. We are currently working all tax cases by mail and phone, while monitoring policy changes at the federal and state level. Anyone with questions about can contact us by phone (704-376-1600) or online.

IRS closes e-service help lines: (March 27) The IRS is closing its e-service help phone lines as well as help desks for filing returns electronically and Affordable Care Act information returns until further notice. The IRS is also unable to answer questions about stimulus payments currently. Taxpayers with questions can still call 1-800-829-1040 to get tax questions answered between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. local time.

This announcement does not affect taxpayers’ ability to file their taxes by mail or online, and collections from the IRS are still mostly suspended.

IRS announces People First Initiative: (March 25) The IRS announced it will be adjusting procedures to “ease the burden on people facing tax issues” during the COVID-19 outbreak. These new changes include issues ranging from postponing certain payments related to Installment Agreements and Offers in Compromise to collection and limiting certain enforcement actions. The IRS will be temporarily modifying procedures as soon as possible; the projected start date will be April 1, and the effort will initially run through July 15. During this period, to the maximum extent possible, the IRS will avoid in-person contacts. However, the IRS will continue to take steps where necessary to protect all applicable statutes of limitations. Read more.

Tax Day deadline pushed back 90 days to July 15 for Federal and State Taxes: (March 20) The U.S. Treasury has moved the deadline to file federal income taxes from April 15 to July 15. Now taxpayers have until July 15 to file and pay.

North Carolina has since announced that it will also move its deadline to July 15. However, due to the state’s tax statute, people who do not pay their taxes by April 15 will begin to accrue interest on their taxes. This interest will not apply if taxpayers make payments by the July 15 deadline. Read more.

Free Filing for Taxes is still available: (March 20) Taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is $69,000 or less with access to a computer, cell phone, and internet can go to the IRS Free File site, choose a third-party preparer and file their taxes for free: apps.irs.gov/app/freeFile/