We’ve been living with a pandemic for almost a year, yet most of the supports Congress enacted to help us get through it have either withered, expired, or are about to be wiped out. The House of Representatives passed another relief package back in May, but Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to take it up.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently took some flak, even from within her own party, when she refused to budge on her key demands. And yet not nearly enough ire has been directed at McConnell for a very specific hill he appears willing to die on: ensuring that any relief package contains a corporate liability shield. Hundreds of frontline workers have gotten sick or died after contracting Covid-19, with scant avenues for compensation or justice. McConnell is determined to deny them one of the few they have left.
A liability shield would essentially provide a get-out-of-jail-free card to businesses, offering them nearly blanket protection against Covid-19–related lawsuits, including those claiming that an employer’s reckless behavior led to an employee’s illness or death from the disease. Corporate immunity has been a policy goal of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council since the early 2000s. The US Chamber of Commerce has also gotten on board, lobbying Congress to grant corporations immunity, saying that worker lawsuits are “perhaps the largest area of concern for the overall business community.”
But it’s not like employers are currently being held accountable. Under President Trump, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—the agency tasked with keeping Americans safe at work—has more or less sat out the pandemic. Nine months into the crisis, it has yet to issue binding rules that would require employers to take steps to keep employees safe. OSHA leadership has even made it clear that the guidelines it has released are suggestions that can be ignored. Despite receiving more than 13,000 complaints related to Covid-19 workplace safety, OSHA has followed up on just 309 cases, or about 2 percent, and closed more than 11,000 without action.
For the first six months of the pandemic, OSHA didn’t issue a single violation, despite hundreds of worker deaths. It has since issued citations to 62 businesses, including two in early September to meatpacking giants Smithfield Packaged Meats Corporation and JBS Foods, Inc. When the citations were issued, a total of 1,584 workers at the two plants had tested positive, and 10 had died. OSHA proposed fining Smithfield $13,494 and JBS $15,615—a pittance for companies with millions in profits.
As OSHA twiddled its thumbs, workers paid the price. As of mid-December, at least 262 meatpacking employees had died from Covid-19, according to tracking by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, while nearly 50,000 had tested positive. There have been at least 1,445 deaths among health care workers, according to The Guardian and Kaiser Health News. Among grocery store workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, 109 had died by late November, and 17,400 had been infected or exposed. At least eight Amazon warehouse employees have died, and the company has reported that 19,816 of its workers, including at Whole Foods, had been infected as of October.
Another avenue of redress for people who contracted Covid-19 at work could be the workers’ compensation system. But lawmakers have gutted it. Insurance companies, arguing that workers can’t prove they contracted Covid-19 on the job, have rejected thousands of claims, even from health care workers and prison guards.
So one of the few avenues for justice left is suing the most negligent employers. Some lawsuits are already pending. The family of a Publix grocery store employee who died has sued the company, alleging the store barred workers from wearing face masks. A lawsuit against Tyson Foods over the death of a man who contracted the virus while employed at its Waterloo, Iowa, facility alleges that managers took bets on how many workers would catch Covid. A suit against Walmart alleges that one of its stores failed to protect workers with masks and social distancing. After suffering symptoms for two weeks, Wando Evans was finally sent home on March 23; he was found dead two days later.
McConnell’s insistence on the liability shield was an atrocious position to begin negotiations with. That he has been willing to risk the country’s economy and health for months to get what he wants is heinous.