Businesses Begin to Open, and So Do Worker Safety Lawsuits

As the country prepared to reopen in the coming weeks and months, workers do not want to put themselves at risk, and employers want to ensure they will not be sued if workers get sick.

When is it safe for people to go back to work? What about the health of workers? What if employees get sick? Do employers have liability?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said liability protection for employers must be included in the next round of pandemic relief legislation, according to an NPR article.

“If there's any red line, it's on litigation,” McConnell said Tuesday. “The litigation epidemic has already begun. As of the end of last week, one report had it that 771 lawsuits had already been filed. This is going to impact our ability to begin to get back to work.”

However, workers’ rights advocates say shielding employers from liability is not necessary and could actually backfire. Many are worry that if laws protect employers completely, there will be no effort to ensure workplaces are actually safe.

“If the laws simply give immunity to corporations, there will be absolutely no incentives to ensure that they create a safe work environment,” said Remington A. Gregg, a lawyer with the watchdog group Public Citizen. Granting legal immunity, he says, will “sabotage the effort to get workers and consumers back. If people don't trust that stores, offices and workplaces are safe, they will refuse to return.”

McConnell has not detailed what kind of legal protection employers are looking for. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggests that it could be narrowly tailored.

“No one wants to protect bad actors here,” said Neil Bradley, the chambers chief policy officer. “But businesses that are trying to do the right thing shouldn't be second-guessed a year later in a court of law.”

Bradley suggested employers would only be shielded from lawsuits if they followed the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal workplace safety agency.

Bradley says that if a business does its best to comply with those recommendations, that should safeguard them from frivolous lawsuits. However, “if they are willfully forcing workers to work in unsafe conditions, then they don't have that liability protection.”

That being said, some worker advocates complain that the CDC and OSHA have not provided employers with adequate guidance.

The recent mandate that meat processing plants stay open is one of the biggest examples of this debate. Last week, President Trump signed an order designed to keep meat plants open, even though hundreds of workers at those facilities have been sickened with COVID-19.

The move angered workers and their unions who felt it protected plant owners at the expense of their employers.

“People feel helpless. I mean they feel like they have no voice,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents workers at a Colorado meat processing plant where six people died. “They're going to force them to go to work but then not give them the safety protocols. And then companies don't have to worry about their liability?”

Laws regarding a workers’ unemployment benefits if they are offered back their jobs vary by state. However, the debate and discussion regarding worker safety and employer liability continues.

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