Jurisprudence

Giving Corporations a License to Kill

The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota
The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota Kerem Yucel/Getty Images

By late April, it was clear to meatpacking workers at a Smithfield Foods plant in Missouri that their employer was putting their lives in danger. Smithfield’s workers were forced to come into the cramped plant—even after at least eight workers showed COVID-19 symptoms—where they had no personal protective equipment, faced retaliation if they took sick leave, couldn’t socially distance, and couldn’t even cover their mouths to cough. Workers were forced to go hours without washing their hands and stand nearly shoulder to shoulder. Meanwhile, workers in the plant were hearing alarming reports of outbreaks at other meatpacking plants from Minnesota to Illinois.

Smithfield didn’t institute protective measures until after workers finally sued the meatpacking plant to demand a safe workplace. Those protections may have come too late for some. Thousands of meatpacking plant workers across the country have now tested positive, and at least 63 have died. But Senate Republicans are pushing legislation that would make it nearly impossible to make Smithfield and other companies pay workers damages for knowingly exposing workers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—following a lobbying offensive by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—recently announced that Senate Republicans’ top COVID-19 response priority is sweeping corporate immunity legislation that would make it nearly impossible to sue corporations for COVID-19-related legal claims by workers, consumers, or patients. Corporate immunity could give employers a free pass to flout worker safety laws, recklessly expose consumers to the virus, or ignore Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on stopping the spread of the coronavirus. On top of that, corporate special interests are also lobbying to get legal immunity from a wide range of critical worker protections, from minimum wage to disability rights laws. In other words, Senate Republicans are giving corporations a license to put workers and customers’ lives at risk.

McConnell says he’s concerned about a “second pandemic” of lawsuits against companies that gamble with workers’ and customers’ safety. But there’s no evidence this is going to happen—not least because workers already face steep barriers to sue their employers over workplace safety issues. As the real pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Americans and gotten tens of thousands of front-line workers sick, House Democrats voted earlier this month to invest in testing and contact tracing, establish worker safety standards, and provide hazard pay to essential workers. But Senate Republicans have refused to act on these measures. Instead, Mitch McConnell is holding further relief hostage unless Democrats agree to his sweeping, unprecedented corporate immunity demand. Senate Republicans aren’t just leaving the American people with inadequate protections from this deadly disease: They want to ensure that if we get sick because of their negligence, we will have no recourse.

And there is plenty of evidence that corporations are already gambling with workers’ lives. Another Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, became the country’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak, with more than 640 cases before it finally shut down—but not before a company spokesperson tried to pin the blame for the outbreak on the “large immigrant population.” At a third meatpacking plant, management threatened to suspend workers who wore masks and refused to shut down for cleaning until the local press started calling them out.

Most of these workers live paycheck to paycheck. The average meatpacking worker makes just $28,450 a year. These workers have no choice but to continue to show up every single day and put their lives on the line to support their families. But more than 18,000 meatpacking workers, who are disproportionately likely to be Black, brown, or immigrants—have tested positive for COVID-19 because the industry refused to take basic steps to protect workers. Kim Cordova, who leads a local union representing many meatpacking workers, told the Hill, “any attempt to shield companies from liability is a potential death sentence for front-line essential workers—putting all Americans at risk in the long term.”

And it’s not just meatpacking plants. Nearly half of the workers at retail stores, grocery stores, or coffee shops report that their employers don’t provide gloves. Worse still, because of our nation’s long history of systemic racism, meatpacking, retail, restaurant, and food service workers are disproportionately Black, Latinx, and indigenous people. Dangerous workplaces, alongside health care discrimination and environmental racism, are driving staggering disparities in deaths between Black and white Americans. Data from 40 states and D.C. shows that Black people in America are more than twice as likely as white people to die of COVID-19—and in some states, the gap is even greater. That’s a consequence of systemic racism, deeply rooted in a racist economic system in which 80 percent of Black workers can’t work from home; Black workers are disproportionately likely to work in industries that are putting workers’ lives at risk; and a deep racial wealth gap means that Black workers are far less likely to have the resources to safely stay home.

Less than a quarter of workers at Chipotle or Burger King say masks are required in the workplace or made available to workers. Less than 1 in 10 of workers at Walmart, the largest private employer of Black workers in America, could say the same. COVID-19 outbreaks have flared up at Amazon warehouses across the country, whose workers are disproportionately likely to be Black, as the retail company refused to temporarily close warehouses for sanitization after workers tested positive. At least eight Amazon workers have died—and the company still refuses to disclose how many workers have tested positive for the coronavirus or died without public reporting. Instead, Amazon executives evoked racist tropes to discredit a Black warehouse worker the company fired for leading a walkout for workplace safety protections. Amazon isn’t alone. A recent survey found that Black workers were twice as likely to experience retaliation from employers when they spoke up for worker protections from the pandemic. As people march in streets to affirm that Black Lives Matter, Republicans are trying to give companies a free pass to kill Black and brown workers by negligently exposing them to COVID-19.

If workers can’t go to court, their rights probably won’t be enforced at all. Working people have flooded the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration with thousands of COVID-19 safety complaints—from shortages of masks and gloves to being prohibited from wearing masks or forced to work within six feet of people who seem sick. But OSHA has, to this day, issued just one citation for safety violations. Lawsuits alone won’t protect workers’ rights. But with no threat of OSHA enforcement and no threat of liability, corporations will have little incentive to take precautions if keeping workers safe costs money. And if corporations expose workers to COVID-19, workers will then expose customers, friends, and family members too, worsening community spread. Under McConnell’s corporate immunity plan, customers who get COVID-19 because companies cut corners while reopening won’t be able to sue either, even if companies break state public health laws or flout CDC guidelines.

Businesses need the right incentives to protect workers from COVID-19. Corporate immunity would give them a free pass to gamble with workers’ lives.