Republicans and corporate interests exploit coronavirus crisis to erase companies’ liability

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced that they are working on legislation to give companies enhanced protections against lawsuits by employees and consumers who contract COVID-19 and claim that the business is responsible for their infection. Instead of advancing crucial worker protections and aid to state and local governments, Republicans and corporate advocacy organizations have made “liability shield” legislation the main priority for additional pandemic relief and recovery measures—claiming that it is necessary to remove liability from businesses in order to reopen the economy. To be clear, removing legal accountability from businesses would jeopardize the health and safety of workers and consumers and threaten the overall economic recovery.

In the last several months, there have been many examples of businesses failing to provide workers with the necessary personal protective equipment to enable them to perform their jobs safely and effectively. Further, some workplaces have continued to operate when workers reported infection and have become epicenters of a local outbreak. Eliminating all legal liability for businesses will likely lead to more businesses acting irresponsibly and placing potential profits ahead of worker and consumer safety.

Compounding this problem is the fact that policymakers have gutted federal budgets for worker protection enforcement over the last decade, as shown in Table 1.

Funding for worker protection agencies has experienced a decline over the last decade: Agency budgets in millions, 2010-2020

Fiscal Year Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Wage and Hour Division (WHD) National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
2010 558 283
2011 558 282
2012 564 227 278
2013 535 215 263
2014 552 224 274
2015 552 227 274
2016 552 227 274
2017 552 227 274
2018 552 227 274
2019 557 229 274
2020 581 242 241

Source: EPI analysis of Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Board budget data from 2010–2020.

As the workforce has expanded, the number of inspectors available to ensure that businesses are operating in compliance with health and safety regulations have also declined. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), there is approximately one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers. Figure A shows worker protection agencies are responsible for far more workers than they were a decade ago.

Agencies are now responsible for far more workers than it was a decade ago: Number of private-sector workers per full-time employee, 2010–2018

FY Occupational Safety and Health Administration Wage and Hour Division National Labor Relations Board
2008 63,648 111,594 82,804
2009 59,901 100,240 80,784
2010 54,741 76,265 78,321
2011 55,422 76,259 77,076
2012 57,135 74,870 80,303
2013 60,183 94,344 83,888
2014 61,043 94,477 84,853
2015 62,721 104,723 87,896
2016 65,288 103,103 92,969
2017 71,536 102,464 98,064
2018 74,824 107,846 110,790
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

 

Workers and consumers already face significant challenges in holding corporations accountable. Any effort to immunize corporations from responsibility to ensure workers a safe workplace will only lead to fewer protections for working people. Unfortunately, several states have already taken steps to shield corporations from liability of exposing workers and consumers to COVID-19. Compounding this problem is lax enforcement of worker protections and the Trump administration’s and congressional Republicans’ efforts to deregulate. Many companies had safety and health issues before the pandemic, and they should not be benefited by the public health crisis and awarded with a shield from liability.





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