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Businesses Liability: When Is It Safe For People To Go Back To Work?

NOEL KING, HOST:

When will it be safe for people to go back to work? Employers are asking that; so are workers. Workers want to know they aren't putting themselves at risk, and employers want to guarantee that they won't get sued if their workers do get sick. Now, this has become a bit of a fight. Yesterday, I talked to Neil Bradley. He's the chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That group is lobbying to protect employers from lawsuits.

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NEIL BRADLEY: We're not asking for some type of immunity; we're asking for a safe harbor. So the CDC, OSHA, state public health authority issues recommendations, a business does its best to comply with those recommendations - that should be a safe harbor for them against those type of frivolous lawsuits.

KING: As you might imagine, some worker advocates say this is not the right move. Everyone says their goal is to reopen the economy safely. NPR's Scott Horsley has been looking into all of this. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So Republicans in Congress have joined the Chamber of Commerce in pushing to protect employers from lawsuits, from liability. What is the pushback to their argument?

HORSLEY: Advocates for both workers and consumers are pushing back. They say employers don't need special liability protection here. Employers are already shielded from most lawsuits of this type by the workers' compensation system. Workers who get sick or hurt on the job ordinarily have to go through the workers' comp system unless there's a really egregious misconduct by the employer. What's more, attorney Remington Gregg - he's with the advocacy group Public Citizen - says if the goal is to encourage businesses to reopen, then enacting this kind of liability protection might actually backfire.

REMINGTON GREGG: If you're granting legal immunity for businesses right now, it's going to sabotage the effort to get workers and consumers back. If people don't trust that stores, offices and workplaces are safe, they will refuse to return.

HORSLEY: We've also heard complaints from both workers' advocates and some employers that the CDC and OSHA, who Bradley talked about, the government workplace safety agencies, haven't done enough to spell out what makes a workplace safe.

KING: This, it sounds like, will turn into a fight on Capitol Hill.

HORSLEY: Yes. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said he's - he will insist that any future coronavirus relief bill must include a liability shield for employers. So if Democrats want money to help state or local governments, for example, this is what the Republicans in Congress are going to demand in return. The Republican Senate leader is not saying exactly what shape that liability protection ought to take, but McConnell did say yesterday it would be narrowly tailored and would not give employers blanket immunity.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: It will not protect somebody from gross negligence but narrowly crafted to keep us from having an epidemic of lawsuits, which has already begun, which will dramatically slow our efforts to get back to normal.

HORSLEY: McConnell complains that hundreds of COVID-19 lawsuits have already been filed against employers.

KING: Yeah, to that end, last week, President Trump did something really interesting - he ordered meatpacking plants to stay open despite the fact that hundreds of people who work in those plants have gotten sick. What does that signal about how this is moving forward?

HORSLEY: Right. A lot of workers were really unhappy with that executive order. They felt like it took away their leverage to demand better working conditions in plants that have really become hot spots for this pandemic. Now, the administration said it was acting to protect the nation's food supply. But one union leader I spoke with, Kim Cordova in Colorado, said she felt like the administration was protecting plant owners at the expense of their employees.

KIM CORDOVA: People feel helpless. I mean, they feel like they have no voice. They're going to force them to go to work but then not give them the safety protocols, and then companies don't have to worry about their liability? Well, it's going to - this is really going to get worse. And let me tell you, there's not people lining up to be packinghouse workers.

HORSLEY: Now, packinghouses might be an extreme example, but workers in all kinds of industries are going to be asking, what precautions is my employer taking and do I feel safe going back to work?

KING: Tens of millions of people have filed unemployment claims, and I imagine that puts pressure on a lot of people to go back to work, even if they are worried about their safety.

HORSLEY: Sure. And their willingness to accept the risk of going back to work may depend in part on what kind of financial cushion they have. As businesses start to reopen, some workers could lose their eligibility for unemployment. Typically, you can't keep collecting unemployment benefits if your old boss offers to hire you back. But there are some exceptions if the state decides you have a good reason not to go back to work or if work is no longer safe. In Texas, for example, older workers have been told they can turn down a job offer without sacrificing their unemployment benefits. But for some workers, this is going to be a real dilemma, Noel, as more businesses open and the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow.

KING: Chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.