Businesses lobby Congress for protection from COVID-19 related lawsuits

Congress has shifted its focus to how companies can better protect themselves from lawsuits related to coronavirus. Many businesses are worried that customers or workers, who may not always abide by new COVID-19 safety rules, will try to sue operators if they get sick.

At the federal level, the agency that can protect workers, OSHA, has received 9,190 complaints as of August 17 related to coronavirus. It has issued just four citations.

Labor groups have criticized OSHA for failing to set an emergency temporary standard, a national set of required safety regulations that workplaces across America would have to abide by if they want to avoid facing citations and other fees. Instead, OSHA has laid out a set of guidelines for businesses to follow, but that lack an enforcement component.

OSHA has defended the decision to not adopt emergency rules, saying its standards, in addition to its coronavirus guidelines, are sufficient. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia wrote in a late April letter to AFL-CIO union president Richard Trumka that the agency would not adopt an emergency standard because “OSHA’s industry-specific guidance is far more informative for workers and companies about the steps to be taken in their particular workplaces.”

“That is one of the reasons OSHA has considered tailored guidance to be more valuable,” Scalia wrote.

The AFL-CIO ultimately responded by suing OSHA in May, but the case was rejected a month later after a federal appeals court ruled that the agency “reasonably determined that an [emergency temporary standard] is not necessary at this time.”

Labor activists also say liability protection for businesses could shield some that may not be acting to protect their employees. Dawn Huckelbridge, director for Paid Leave for All, said the focus on immunity is almost an admission that workers are likely to get sick on the job.

That’s particularly worrisome for women who are most likely to be in fields that don’t offer the benefit. Of the 40 lowest-paying jobs, women make up nearly two thirds of the workforce, which includes industries like hospitality, where only 33 percent of workers have access to paid leave, and retail, where 61 percent of workers have it.

Earlier this year, McDonald’s workers and employees at Instacart, the app that hires personal shoppers to get your groceries for you, went on strike to protest working conditions related to coronavirus.

 

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