McConnell faces backlash from small business owners: Stop using our plight to push for COVID-19 corporate immunity
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

A coalition of more than 30,000 small business owners across the U.S. is urging Congress not to grant corporations sweeping immunity from coronavirus-related workplace safety lawsuits, warning that the move would harm Main Street and "undo decades of worker and consumer protections."

"Corporate immunity is unnecessary to protect small business owners, as state law already protects responsible business owners who act reasonably," advocacy group Main Street Alliance wrote in a letter (pdf) to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders last week. "Creating this type of blanket immunity from lawsuits by injured workers or consumers would give bad actors a competitive edge at the cost of people's lives."

"Arguments for corporate immunity during this pandemic are premised on a false choice that illogically pits public health and safety against the economy and the viability of businesses," the letter continues. "In reality, we need to pursue a pragmatic, science-based approach to creating a pandemic-resilient economy that considers both the needs of small business owners and the public need for health and safety."

The letter came as big companies continued to ramp up their lobbying campaign in support of liability protections, which would shield corporations from legal responsibility for workers who contract Covid-19 on the job.

In a meeting at the State Dining Room of the White House on Monday, the CEOs of Panera Bread and Restaurant Brands International both pushed President Donald Trump to support liability protections in the next coronavirus stimulus package. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said liability protections are his top priority for future Covid-19 legislation.

"The Democrats don't want to give you the liability provisions," Trump said. "They just don't want to have that. And it's crazy that they don't... But we'll get it anyway."

Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, assured the CEOs that the White House is "working very hard on the COVID-19 liability restrictions" as it pushes states to reopen their economies.

"That's going to be a key part of our next package," said Kudlow.

Main Street Alliance said that while its member businesses are "eager to resume operations as soon as possible," they are also "very concerned about safety."

"This is partially because they seek to be responsible community members and prevent the spread of this deadly virus," the group wrote. "But it is also because none of our members wants their business or brand associated with the spread of illness or death to employees or customers."

Instead of "promoting a race-to-the-bottom with life or death consequences" by approving liability protections for corporations, the coalition said Congress should provide:

  • Direct support for small businesses for the duration of the pandemic and that allows reopening at the pace and level businesses need to safeguard the health of owners, staff, and customers;
  • Adequate testing, tracing, supported isolation, and clear, industry-specific workplace safety standards and support;
  • Healthcare and economic protection for all workers and families—without immigration-based discrimination—to support both a healthy workforce and local spending;
  • Establish sufficient care infrastructure (child care, schools, paid leave) so parents and caregivers can return to work knowing their families are safe and protected;
  • Mechanisms to tackle systemic racial and economic inequities that are devastating businesses in communities of color and pushing people of color onto the frontlines of the disease.

"Main Street small businesses should not be forced into unfair competition with irresponsible businesses seeking immunity for their decisions to ignore health and safety standards for workers and consumers," the alliance wrote. "By rewarding noncompliance, corporate immunity would shift the costs of responsible behavior onto responsible Main Street businesses while putting people at grave risk."

"With this perverse cost-shift," the group warned, "corporate immunity could result in only the most irresponsible corporations surviving the pandemic."