If you were looking for evidence that Republicans in Congress have no sympathy for workers facing illness or worse from the coronavirus pandemic, look both at the party’s proposal to cut unemployment benefits and the provision in its coronavirus relief bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calls a must-have in any bill that passes: Liability protection for employers whose employees get sick at work.
The GOP proposal would erect almost insurmountable obstacles to lawsuits by workers who become infected with the coronavirus at their workplaces.
It would absolve employers of responsibility for taking any but the most minimal steps to make their workplaces safe. It would preempt tough state workplace safety laws (not that there are very many of them).
And while shutting the courthouse door to workers, it would allow employers to sue workers for demanding safer conditions.
This is the provision that McConnell has described as his “red line” in negotiations over the next coronavirus relief bill, meaning that he intends to demand that it be incorporated in anything passed on Capitol Hill and sent to President Trump for his signature. The provision would be retroactive to last Dec. 1 and remain in effect at least until Oct. 1, 2024.
The GOP proposal would make workplaces immeasurably more hazardous for workers, and also for customers. That’s because litigation — or the threat of litigation — is one of the bulwarks of workplace safety enforcement.
Without confidence that workplaces are safe, employees will be reluctant to come to work and customers reluctant to walk in the door.
“Ensuring that workers and consumers can hold companies accountable for their actions is critical to establishing a safe reopening of our economy,” Celine McNicholas and Margaret Poydock of the labor-associated Economic Policy Institute have observed.
The proposal would supersede such federal worker safeguards as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, among others.
In plain English, the Republicans are proposing to eviscerate almost all workplace protections at the moment when the threat to workers’ health may be its highest in a century.
Let’s not overlook that federal enforcement of workplace safety is anything but strong to begin with. The maximum OSHA penalty is $13,494 per violation.
That’s “insufficient to serve as a deterrent,” McNicholas and Poydock say. “Companies merely factor these penalties into the cost of doing business.”
In a mountain of irony, or perhaps cynicism, the GOP titled its measure the “Safeguarding America’s Frontline Employees To Offer Work Opportunities Required to Kickstart the Economy Act,” or the “SAFE TO WORK Act.”
The measure, which was formally introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), states that it’s aimed at “discouraging insubstantial lawsuits relating to COVID-19.” It doesn’t define “insubstantial,” however.
The campaign has been spearheaded by the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been developing a model law on the subject for state legislatures.
The most obnoxious provision of the GOP proposal is one that shifts the liability in COVID cases from the employer to employee. This provision allows employers to sue employees or their representatives for bringing a claim for a COVID infection.
So let’s not pretend that the Republicans have the welfare or health of working Americans at heart. They may talk about the virtues of work and the need to get workers back on the job for their own health and that of the economy.
The “SAFE AT WORK Act” proves with every line that they’re lying. Democrats on Capitol Hill should draw their own red line against it, and not budge an inch.