As states mull reopening economy, worker protections may be on the chopping block

After several weeks of government-mandated business closures and social restrictions, the coronavirus conversation is starting to shift to a new phase: how to reopen the economy amid the legal uncertainties surrounding worker protections.

One of the central questions state officials are debating in the effort to kickstart commerce is who will be on the hook when employees or customers contract COVID-19 related to the reopening?

In answering that question, all levels of government are experiencing pressure from competing interests. Business groups are seeking insulation from potential lawsuits by sick workers, while unions want more workplaces protections. Trial lawyers, meanwhile, are trying to preserve existing worker protections they can use to hold companies accountable if employees fall ill on the job.

These competing aims will have major implications for the fifth coronavirus relief bill that Congress is starting to draft.

The Associated Press examined the different approaches taking shape across the country. Here’s a sample:

Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a proposal protecting businesses from lawsuits if customers or workers are exposed to virus after reopening. Gov. Gary Herbert, who hasn’t yet signed the bill into law, announced the state would reopen restaurants starting May 1 as long as customers used “extreme precautions.”

Utah Democratic Rep. Brian King called the legislation a “get-out-of-liability-free card,” according to the AP.

“If a business wants to get open and make some money, that means they have to be responsible for the safety of both their employees and the public,” King said. “They don’t get it both ways. They don’t get to both make money and be insulated from their negligent decision-making.”

Mississippi, North Carolina are Missouri are taking a similar approach and considering reducing the liability of manufacturers, businesses, health care workers and first responders in the event of a lawsuit.

“(Businesses) don’t need to be concerned about liability from opportunistic people that might be trying to find a chink in their armor, to sue them for trying to do the right thing,” President of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry Dan Mehan told the AP. “Lawsuit protection is paramount for this recovery.”

Pushing in the opposite direction, California Democratic state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez proposed legislation that would provide workers’ compensation to employees infected with the virus at work.

On the topic of workers’ comp, other state leaders worry that expanded unemployment benefits may incentivize employees to stay home. Iowa officials recently warned furloughed workers that they would lose their unemployment benefits if they refuse to return when their employer calls them back to work, the AP reported.

The federal government is also weighing in on the economic reopening. President Donald Trump’s recent executive decision to keep meat processing plants open was developed in concert with industry giants like Tyson to offer some liability protections in case workers get sick, the AP said.

The move hits close to home for some Washington state workers. Delayed safety precautions at the Tyson Fresh Meats packing plant in Wallula, WA are thought to have contributed to the death of one worker and the infection of about 100 other workers and their families.

While Gov. Jay Inslee has not released a detailed plan on the reopening of businesses, rest assured that Emery Reddy is committed to guiding our clients through each step of this crisis.

Call us if you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus at work, have been terminated illegally or have any other coronavirus-related employment concerns. You won’t get better advice.

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