Arlene Violet: GOP overstates the threat to businesses

By Arlene Violet
Posted 8/17/20

The Congressional Republicans are exaggerating the potential harm to businesses without a liability waiver. As Americans return to offices, shops, restaurants and factories without a COVID-19 …

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Arlene Violet: GOP overstates the threat to businesses


The Congressional Republicans are exaggerating the potential harm to businesses without a liability waiver. As Americans return to offices, shops, restaurants and factories without a COVID-19 vaccine, the GOP pretends to be helping businesses by proposing an immunity for all of them. This position is a thinly disguised attempt to pre-exonerate workplaces run by straw bosses who have no interest in protecting workers if it means it hurts the bottom profit line. Here’s why added protection is unnecessary.

Workers who get sick usually cannot, except within a narrow exemption, drag their employer into regular court. They must make their claims through the state-run worker’s compensation system. Wise employers wouldn’t fight when the claim is based on COVID since the cost is far less to businesses, particularly if they had an unsafe environment, than a lawsuit where compensatory damages for lost wages, pain and suffering, and medical bills would be huge.
Nonetheless, employees don’t have a cakewalk. Employers still would have the option of fighting a worker’s comp claim since the company would retain the right to challenge the claim on the basis that COVID-19 was contracted outside the workplace. Employees would have a serious burden in establishing that they got it at a workplace, particularly if the company was compliant with CDC regulations.

Almost 100 years ago state governments set up the worker’s compensation system specifically to prevent companies from being bankrupted by liability claims. A substantial body of case law exists which provides a clear pathway for establishing claims. It is true that higher insurance premiums may grow as a result of burgeoning claims, but a business has that under control by creating a safe workplace. Already, companies have been creative in protecting their workers. Big corporations in office towers in New York City reduced elevator traffic by staggering employee start times.

One hitch to using the worker’s compensation system for claims is that some states don’t cover infectious diseases. Legislation could and should rectify that situation.

Another protection that employers have for lawsuits which might emanate from bogus discrimination against older workers or privacy violations is the so-called Rule 11 which awards legal fees and costs if an action is brought frivolously. Further, had the Trump administration not defanged OSHA, that agency could have been a gateway before litigation could go to a court of law with an appropriate statute. Regrettably, the department of labor has failed to police worker safety even before the coronavirus so this lack of enforcement has made labor unions and organized workers shun any role for the agency.

That lack of respect for OSHA, because it is handcuffed by Mr. Trump’s policies, results in a situation which actually hurts the economy. If workers start dropping like flies the economy will grind to a halt, further endangering economic recovery.

Doing the right thing actually can preserve the economy. Sloppy health practices by corporations shouldn’t be countenanced. Not only do workers become ill but also the public shuns away from the business and its products. Removing the last vestige of protection for workers by a blanket immunity helps nothing. The Congressional republicans should rely on the system in place for 100 years with the worker’s compensation system while demanding compliance with CDC workplace rules.

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

Arlene Violet

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