As time runs out on negotiations over a new COVID-19 relief bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to push his harmful and deadly agenda of putting corporations in front of people forward, with his proposal of granting temporary corporate immunity to businesses who otherwise would face lawsuits related to their behavior during the pandemic.
That proposal would effectively free corporations of any responsibility from creating unsafe and dangerous working conditions, as well as remove any grounds for taking future steps to ensure the safety of their workers or customers.
Moderate senators like Maggie Hassan and Angus King have been working hard to champion relief proposals without harmful corporate immunity tacked on. With the pressure to get the deal done mounting in recent weeks, the looming threat of Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s deadly plan grows—and with it—our fear that it becomes a reality.
Allowing corporations to avoid accountability through liability protections threatens public health and worker safety. To insist that “temporary” immunization of corporations be non-negotiable for advancing any pandemic relief legislation is an imminent death threat for many people and communities, as COVID-19 continues its uncontrolled spread nationally this winter.
All year, Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and OSHA Director Loren Sweatt have failed to protect the rights and safety of workers, enabling corporations to continue packing employees in unsafe workplace conditions and exposing them to the virus, and it may be too late for many people by the time changes are implemented from the new Administration and incoming leadership. Those long overdue changes in the Biden Administration should include an emergency temporary standard that binds employers to enforceable rules on distancing, contract tracing of ill employees, and much more - not just guidelines businesses can choose to follow. They also include an Occupational Safety & Health Administration that will actually investigate and punish unsafe workplaces not, as we discovered through Public Justice’s action on behalf of Pa. meat processing workers, give a heads up of an inspection to a facility from which it had received horrifying complaints so that its *inspector* could remain safe when visiting.
As the nation braces for a colder season, the next four months are what many project will be among the worst, and the peak in infections this winter will heavily impact the most vulnerable workers in the most dangerous industries. These include Amazon warehouse workers managing the busiest online shopping season ever, and in some cases still fighting for adequate time to sanitize workplaces, true contact tracing, and clear communication from management about what they should do if they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or think they’ve been exposed. Public Justice has seen the harmful impacts of when a corporation fails to implement COVID-related regulations already, and we are currently part of a legal team representing Amazon workers and members of their households And while the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine is on the horizon, early indications suggest that many of the workers in those industries likely wouldn’t be vaccinated until the spring, at the earliest.
Granting temporary legal immunity for corporations that have already created dangerous work environments and put their workers at the frontlines of the pandemic is a direct violation of human and civil rights. Lawmakers should see the practice of implementing corporate immunity as the opposite of what each of them has been sent to Washington to do: protecting and serving their constituents. Denying these workers access to the justice system removes a fundamental safeguard and opportunity they have to safer and better working conditions and threatens their very lives with the increased risk of exposure to the virus.
While the supposed goal of legal immunity is to support the economy by preventing businesses from being weighed down by lawsuits, the fact is that this proposal is a direct threat to economic recovery. To be clear, Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s plan does not seek to stop an “epidemic” of lawsuits as he claims, but to instead enrich the GOP’s corporate donors.
The passage of temporary immunity will do little to revive the economy. America’s commercial life will remain at a standstill if consumers do not feel comfortable returning to businesses, and the threat of corporate immunity will only lead to greater distrust and fear toward a corporation that can do whatever it wants without facing any legal accountability. Not only will immunizing corporations allow them to make dangerous decisions, but it will also damage the confidence and trust of consumers and the public. If businesses know that they are immune, they will act irresponsibly, whether that means cutting corners or overpacking warehouse facilities with workers. With a lack of incentive to keep workers safe, more people will get sick, and consumers will become more cautious and fearful of heading back to stores and other public spaces as cases skyrocket.
Additionally, workers who lose unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to an unhealthy workplace are forced to bear the cost of the disease, which will also put a strain on the American economy. We are already seeing unemployment numbers continue to climb and match those seen in the Great Depression. However, few people will voluntarily put their lives in harm’s way if they believe they are taking a major risk with returning to unsafe working conditions.
We also filed a first-of-its-kind case against Smithfield Foods, filed on behalf of the Rural Community Workers’ Alliance (RCWA) and an anonymous meat packing worker in Milan, Missouri, which was the catalyst for a number of operational changes that Smithfield took to increase worker safety, including changing its clock in/clock out policies to allow for social distancing and enforcing mask policies. Through cases like this, we have seen how the justice system has helped individuals take a stand against powerful corporations and hold them accountable by preventing them from making further dangerous decisions.
Access to the courts has given a voice to those who bravely stood up for themselves and for their loved ones in demanding to have their rights be heard. This, in turn, further establishes employee trust and consumer confidence in knowing that public health takes top priority--and most importantly--ensures that many lives will be saved in curbing these unsafe and dangerous conditions.
Recently, we proudly joined our allies at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to co-sign a letter urging members of Congress to reject corporate immunity within any COVID-19 relief legislation. We stand alongside the Leadership Conference’s open call against corporate immunity due to its direct harm toward Black, Latino, and other workers of color who make up a large amount of the “essential” workforce showing up in-person at the frontlines, and consequently, are greatly exposed to the risk of infection and death. As the letter clearly states: “immunity shifts the burden of these employers’ decisions onto those individuals who, because of a history of structural oppression and economic marginalization, are among the least able to bear the cost of illness and death.”
With this shift in both the season and in talks of a relief bill, this time is critical. Rolling back a crucial means for workers who have had their basic health and safety at work endangered during this upcoming period will lead to the worst of both worlds – it will harm workers’ health and hurt the economy. Keeping our courts open and our justice system available to those most affected by this pandemic is the only way to ensure that corporations are unable to run unchecked. Senator Durbin has made good faith offers to compromise, while Republicans haven’t budged, making it clear that this is more of an attempt to kill a deal than to help anyone.
Congress needs to put its people first. The corporate immunity proposal is an insidious reminder of the continued attempt to disregard the human lives that run the nation’s workforce. Now is the time for lawmakers to realize what’s at stake with Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s deadly plan, and to put a stop to it before more American lives are lost.