A diverse coalition of nearly 120 progressive advocacy groups is urging Congress not to grant corporations sweeping immunity from coronavirus-related workplace safety lawsuits, warning that the Republican-backed proposal could have devastating consequences for both employees and customers.
In a letter (pdf) to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders on Wednesday, the groups said they “strongly oppose any legislation that would establish nationwide immunity for businesses that operate in an unreasonably unsafe manner, causing returning workers and consumers to risk Covid-19 infection.”
“When workplaces are not properly protected, patients, customers, clients, and the community are all at risk,” reads the letter, which was led by Public Citizen and the Center for Justice and Democracy. “This concern is not hypothetical. Some essential businesses have already put employees back in the workforce without ensuring their safety. As a result, infections have spread in and out of the workplace.”
The letter came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that protecting corporations from coronavirus-related legal action by workers and customers is his “red line” for the next Covid-19 stimulus package.
“This is obscene,” Public Citizen tweeted Wednesday. “Mitch McConnell thinks the most pressing threat facing our nation right now is that people might need to take a company to court for doing something dangerous or illegal during this pandemic.”
President Donald Trump has also voiced support for shielding companies from legal responsibility for exposing their workers to Covid-19, a proposal pushed by the Koch network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“We are trying to take liability away from these companies,” Trump said during a press briefing last week. “We just don’t want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong.”
According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration is considering issuing “a liability waiver that would clear businesses of legal responsibility from employees who contract the coronavirus on the job.”
Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker safety and health program at the National Employment Law Project, condemned the idea as “one of the most appalling things I’ve heard in the context of this crisis.”
Read the progressive groups’ letter in full:
Dear Speaker Pelosi, Leader McCarthy, Leader McConnell, Leader Schumer:
The undersigned organizations fully support the nation’s safe economic recovery. For that reason, we strongly oppose any legislation that would establish nationwide immunity for businesses that operate in an unreasonably unsafe manner, causing returning workers and consumers to risk Covid-19 infection. Removing legal accountability for businesses not only would jeopardize the health and safety of workers, it would also jeopardize everyone who enters those workplaces. This would be extremely damaging to the nation’s economic recovery.
Any recovery requires the public to have confidence that businesses are operating as safely as possible. Establishing legal immunity for businesses that operate unsafely would do the opposite of instilling public confidence. Instead, it would introduce new anxieties to an already highly-anxious public. And it would have real-life consequences for every community, since legal liability is one of the most powerful incentives we have to ensure that businesses operate safely. When workplaces are not properly protected, patients, customers, clients, and the community are all at risk.
This concern is not hypothetical. Some essential businesses have already put employees back in the workforce without ensuring their safety. As a result, infections have spread in and out of the workplace. In some cases, this has led to renewed shutdowns, slowing the pace of recovery. From protecting the food supply chain to preventing needless deaths in nursing homes, it is clear that companies responsible for the health and safety of others must continue having every incentive to protect them. Many companies already had serious safety problems prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the pandemic cannot be an excuse for failing to protect workers and the public.
Moreover, greatly compounding the problem are recent trends toward deregulation and lax regulatory enforcement of workplaces. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has substantially stepped back from its role to protect the health and safety of workers during this pandemic, and is dangerously relying on employers to self-police. Under these circumstances, the specter of unsafe workplaces is a significant concern. Without adequate protective equipment and other safety measures, workers will be deterred from coming back to work. Immunity would only exacerbate these problems.
In sum, we strongly oppose any legislation that would immunize businesses that fail to ensure safe workplaces.