Senate Debate Over Corporate Protections Reflects National Debate

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As the Senate takes up the task of designing the next stimulus package, one topic has emerged as a dealbreaker along party lines: Corporate liability.

Congress is now split down the aisle regarding workers’ rights to sue an employer for exposing them to the COVID-19 virus, and a company’s freedom from liability in such cases. Both parties are taking a hardline on the issue, threatening a legislative stalemate as many Americans head back to work amid a prevailing pandemic.

Widespread Lawsuits

The country has seen a surge in wrongful-death lawsuits against businesses accused of not following proper safety protocol. In one case, the family of a deceased Walmart employee who died after contracting the novel coronavirus at work has sued the retail giant on the grounds that Walmart management failed to inform employees that one of their colleagues had tested positive for COVID-19.

Such alleged negligence, compounded by a failure to offer adequate space for physical distancing, personal protective equipment, and necessary sanitization, has brought new legal vulnerability to businesses attempting a partial reopening.

Corporate Protections

Republicans are pushing for legislation that will protect businesses from lawsuits as a means of restarting the economy. GOP senators hope that if workers are barred from suing their employers for exposing them to the virus on the job, more businesses would be willing to reopen.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has announced that Republicans will not vote for a stimulus package if it doesn’t include such provisions. He called corporate protection a “red line” and said that failure to pass this law would lead to “years of endless lawsuits.”

Public Safety Concerns

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Democrats are taking a hardline against the proposed corporate protections. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has dismissed the Republican effort as part of a years-long effort to protect corporations at all costs. “Providing some kind of blanket immunity shield is an idea that’s the result of the majority leader’s imaginary boogeyman of a flood of lawsuits, a parade of horribles that is a political ploy,” he said Friday.

Instead of protecting large businesses, Blumenthal favors preserving the rights of workers to receive legal recompense should they be compelled to come into work and fall ill from COVID-19 as a result.

House Democrats have stated that they will not vote for any legislation that weakens employee rights. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said of the matter, “I don’t think that at this time, with coronavirus, that there’s any interest in having any less protection for our workers.”

Matter of Priorities

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) has insisted that corporate liability protections would not be a cure-all, and that it would make exceptions for gross negligence. He told The Washington Post that GOP lawmakers are also considering protections for makers of protective gear.

Still, those who oppose the liability protections warn that the law would reward businesses who disregard the safety of their employees by sending them back to work before conditions are safe.

At the end of the day, the debate over the issue reduces to a debate over national priorities: Should we do what we can to rehabilitate the economy at the risk of putting people in harm’s way? Or should we protect people from the virus at the risk of deeper harm to the economy?