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Meeting the challenge: COVID-19 resource for small businesses

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

 Project provides an opportunity for law students to gain work experience and serve the community

By Leslie Ridgeway

Professor Michael Chasalow and rising 3L Emma Cunningham, one of 25 students who collaborated on the Small Business Legal Research Task Force.

A new task force aimed at assisting local small businesses with changing health and safety guidelines related to COVID-19 gave USC Gould students valuable summer experience that some had missed due to cancelled or delayed internships and externships.

The Small Business Legal Research Task Force was started in early May by Professor Michael Chasalow, director of the USC Gould Small Business Clinic. He amassed 25 students to collaborate on the project, which involved creating and launching a website (sbrr.usc.edu) with relevant information, including forms, on everything from whether a business can take customers’ temperature to how to ask a creditor for forbearance on bill payments.

“For many of these issues, there are no applicable legal precedents; we are taking known legal principles and applying them to new rules and regulations,” says Chasalow. “It’s somewhat challenging because you have to thread this needle of trying to be useful but also providing accurate guidance. And it’s a constantly moving target. As soon as we answer a question, new guidance is issued, and we have to update it.”

In fact, the day the task force website was launched, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued new orders closing most businesses in Southern California. For rising 3L Emma Cunningham, who took on codesigning and maintaining the project workflow, it meant going back to the drawing board, but only reinforced her commitment to being part of a solution.

“My sister is a medical physician in Riverside, where she admits and treats patients with COVID, and she was the primary motivation behind it,” she says of joining the task force. “She is doing what she can as a doctor, and I wanted to use the experience that Gould has trained me in to contribute.”

The site features a Q&A page and sample templates for businesses, including a form for patrons agreeing to abide by a business’ terms for mask wearing and social distancing. The site also includes a form for business owners to submit questions that are routed to student volunteers, who research and develop answers that are reviewed by the workflow managers and Chasalow. There’s also a resource page with links to a small business guide from the local nonprofit Bet Tzedek, as well as IRS resources, stimulus information and CDC guidance.

“Our goal is to provide an opportunity for our students to benefit the community,” Chasalow says. “The current situation left many of our students with additional time this summer, but that additional time provides the brain power that enables the task force to function. We have been able to provide meaningful work experiences while producing a high-quality product that is a resource for local businesses. The students on the task force can be proud of the work they are doing and will be able to point to specific contributions they made to the website and to help businesses during this crisis.” Chasalow hopes the project continues as a student-led initiative that provides an ongoing resource for small businesses.

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