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Racine Aims to Protect Consumers Amid Pandemic

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has taken steps to make sure that city residents are protected from illegal business and employment practices while the coronavirus crisis persists.

On April 3, Racine convened the COVID-19 Tele-Town Hall-Know Your Rights & Listening Session. The attorney general, along with staff attorneys from his office, sought to share information about protections for workers, consumers and tenants in light of the virus.

“We are here to help,” Racine said. “We want to hear from you if you see wrongdoing. We are focusing our efforts on seniors and young people, two groups who feel vulnerable at this time.”

Racine has been empowered by the D.C. Council passing emergency legislation on March 17 that deals with the repercussions of the virus. The bill gave the office of the attorney general powers to safeguard residents against abuses.

Jennifer Berger, the chief of the attorney general’s Office of Social Justice, said the new law strengthens her ability to protect tenants.

“As a result of this bill, tenants may not be evicted while the city is in this emergency declared by the mayor,” Berger said. “In addition, during the emergency, late fees cannot be charged to tenants.”

Berger said rental assistance will be available to residents if they meet certain income requirements, if their rent costs $1,250 or more per month or if they have children or elderly in their households. She said the rental assistance will be available to qualified tenants once per year.

Berger also noted the D.C. Superior Court’s Landlord and Tenant Division has suspended hearing cases, primarily evictions, through May 20.

Randy Chen, the assistant attorney general for the Social Justice section, said workers in the District are eligible for paid sick leave despite the emergency and how much they receive depends on the size of the employer workforce. He noted employees can’t be terminated if they take sick leave.

Ben Wiseman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection, said price gouging — the charging of excessive rates for products more than the retail price — won’t be tolerated.

“Price gouging is illegal,” Wiseman said. “If a business is found to be engaging in price gouging we have the ability to revoke licenses and permits. We are also working with online retailers on this.
“If you know of an instance of price gouging, please contact us.”

Wiseman said stores may not stockpile products in need such as toilet paper or hand sanitizers. On another matter, he said utility companies are prohibited from disconnecting customers while the emergency exists.

Wiseman cautioned against scams that have surfaced such as COVID-19 medical insurance and services and encouraged residents to guard their personal information when the stimulus checks come.

“It is important for residents to do your due diligence and be on the lookout for these scams and others,” he said. “If you have doubts, please call us.”

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