Democrats won’t sacrifice your health and safety for corporate profits

October 15, 2020
Republicans’ push for liability immunity during pandemic would facilitate a super-spreading nightmare

[Published in Roll Call]

President Donald Trump has turned his back on Americans, delaying and at times walking away from negotiations to send much needed pandemic relief to our families, communities and businesses.

There are several important, and necessary, pieces to this package — direct stimulus payments, unemployment assistance, aid for local and state governments and the front-line workers they employ, safe child care for working parents, and funding to keep millions at work at airlines and other industries.

There is one piece of the negotiations that Republicans want to include that most Americans do not need or want — corporate immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits, not just during the pandemic, but through 2024.

This immunity would shield all companies from any responsibility should their workers, and even customers, contract COVID-19 because those businesses failed to take preventative measures. Many customer-facing businesses have made great efforts to protect the public and staff from the virus. From plexiglass shields to spacing between tables, from capacity limits to free personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, businesses are going the extra mile to protect their employees and others. Imagine what some of these companies would do if they knew they would never be held accountable.

We must stand up against this push for blanket corporate immunity and instead ensure that we protect everyone’s private right to action. A worker who becomes critically ill after being forced to work in unsafe conditions, a single mom who is denied COVID-19 testing and treatment, a small-business owner improperly denied a recovery loan to stay afloat, and an airline employee whose hours have been unilaterally cut all deserve their day in court. Earlier this year, I introduced the COVID Accountability and Justice Act to ensure that these individuals have access to justice and that people who take illegal advantage of the pandemic are held accountable.

With the Trump administration’s government regulators and watchdogs not doing their part to protect Americans and prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, we must protect an individual’s private right to action.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw fears about the conditions at meatpacking plants, and whether the employees and the product were being properly protected from the virus. We later learned that many of the safety measures that were to be mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were watered down to mere suggestions.

We’ve since seen over 200 deaths of meatpacking workers and over 40,000 have tested positive for COVID-19. And we now have confirmation that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not cracking down on corporations that put their workers at risk of contracting the virus. A recent report shows that OSHA has issued no penalties for a vast majority of complaints received and investigated. And the few that did get fined didn’t have to pay more than $30,000; companies are still raking in millions while putting their workers at risk.

From the moment we passed the CARES Act in March, we said it was a down payment to the American people. As the White House has failed to lead a national response to help steer the nation on a road to recovery, the urgent need for additional relief for working families has grown exponentially. Families are facing evictions, laid-off workers have run out of unemployment and small businesses have permanently shuttered. And as assistance provided in the CARES Act has run out or expired, more industries are now seeing increased layoffs and closures, especially in the airline and hospitality industries.

House Democrats passed the HEROES Act to provide more of that much-needed relief, and then updated it and passed it again to get closer to the GOP’s numbers. It’s time for Trump, Mitch McConnell and Republicans in Congress to be honest. They won’t pass another relief package until we give a license to their corporate backers to sacrifice the health and safety of their employees and customers for the sake of making a profit.

Trump and his enablers have already made clear they want to ignore the virus for the sake of “saving the economy” to benefit Wall Street and the billionaires, while sacrificing the most vulnerable in our communities. Now they want to enshrine that thinking into our next relief package, as we see the evidence of public gatherings, open night clubs, political rallies and even Supreme Court nomination ceremonies creating super-spreading events.

Without mandating preventive measures and ensuring the safety of employees, Republicans are denying relief and assistance for working families because they would rather allow every store front and restaurant, office space and warehouse, and any other work environment to become a breeding ground to spread the deadly coronavirus.

Jan Schakowsky is a Democrat representing Illinois’ 9th District. She chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce and also serves on the Budget Committee.