On Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the HEALS Act—Senate Republicans’ so-called COVID-19 relief package. Instead of protecting struggling Americans as COVID-19 cases spike and families face a nationwide wave of evictions, the GOP’s legislation slashes unemployment assistance for over 30 million unemployed Americans, lets eviction protections expire, and guts safety and health protections for workers and consumers.
Senate Republicans know it’s incredibly risky to send people back to work in the midst of a pandemic. But their plan doesn’t include the binding federal safety standard that labor unions are fighting for. In fact, it’s not designed to protect us at all—it’s designed to protect corporate bottom lines.
Republicans’ corporate immunity proposal, introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Cornyn as part of the HEALS package, would make it impossible for people to hold corporations accountable for cutting corners on safety precautions. The proposal would bar nearly any lawsuits related to COVID-19 exposure, with a narrow exception for intentional misconduct or gross negligence—defined at an extremely high standard plaintiffs could almost never meet.
Corporate greed is already costing lives. At Walmart—the largest private employer of Black workers in America—just one in 10 workers reported in April that masks are required and available in their stores. Workers at Amazon warehouses report that the company won’t clean the freezer suits workers must wear between uses, and that the company’s harsh quotas make it impossible for workers to socially distance. Airlines are already abandoning safety precautions adopted in the spring, packing planes full of people. The Republicans’ proposal takes away our last line of defense when corporate executives put profits ahead of our lives.
Worker safety is public safety: If companies get a free pass to put workers’ lives at risk, workers exposed to COVID-19 on the job could then spread the virus to their communities, seeding new waves of the pandemic. That’s exactly what has happened after President Donald Trump forced meatpacking workers back to work in cramped plants, where workers were denied PPE, discouraged from taking paid sick leave, and unable to socially distance during long shifts. At least 24,000 COVID-19 cases are linked to meatpacking plants, where workers are overwhelmingly Black or immigrant people making minimum wage. But emails obtained by ProPublica revealed meatpacking executives were far more concerned about their profits than workers’ lives—and waved away safety concerns by saying that “social distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops.” Meatpacking workers across the country had to sue their employers after being denied PPE or being discouraged from taking paid sick leave. If Republicans strip workers of the power to hold bad employers accountable at the same time they make it impossible for workers to survive on unemployment insurance, they will be sending workers to their deaths.
McConnell argues that his proposal simply creates a “safe harbor” for companies that are complying with COVID-19 guidance. But in practice, this corporate immunity proposal would cover a sweeping range of COVID-19-related claims, with a narrow exception for intentional misconduct and gross negligence that would be extraordinarily difficult for workers or consumers to prove. And their proposal is riddled with loopholes that bad actors could easily exploit.
Republicans’ corporate immunity proposal would let corporations off the hook for COVID-19-related safety violations as long as they “make reasonable efforts” toward compliance (not, you know, actual compliance) with any applicable government standards and guidance. But there are currently no binding federal worker safety standards for the coronavirus pandemic, and the Republicans’ bill, unlike House Democrats’ Heroes Act, includes no plans to make one. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nonbinding guidance may leave workers out to dry. Just look at the CDC’s guidance for meatpacking plants: To comply, plants just have to “consider” giving workers enough break time to wash or sanitize their hands, rather than actually providing that time, and “consider consulting” with a heating, ventilating, and air conditioning engineer, rather than actually installing safe ventilation.
Worse still, the HEALS Act lets corporations pick and choose which rules they want to follow from federal, state, and local guidance. This risks creating a race to the bottom for states doing the least to protect their workers. Take Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp banned cities from issuing mask mandates. Even if the federal government issued a strong, science-based worker safety standard, if Georgia issued a lax standard that allows corporations to keep putting workers at risk, a Georgia-based corporation could simply opt to follow the weaker standard—and use this proposal to escape accountability in court.
Republicans’ corporate immunity proposal would even strip workers of the power to enforce a wide range of labor and employment protections, including protections under anti-discrimination law and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets the federal minimum wage.* Corporations would be immune from lawsuits arising under these critical civil rights protections as long as the lawsuit relates to COVID-19 (with a narrow exception for intentional discrimination). That could mean that a college student whose school won’t accommodate her disability during online learning wouldn’t be able to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act, or that a pregnant worker couldn’t hold her employer accountable for a reopening plan that didn’t accommodate her pregnancy.
If Mitch McConnell’s latest proposal passes, by October, unemployment insurance will be covering just 70 percent of the wages workers earned before the crisis. After decades of stagnant wages, most American families simply cannot live on 70 percent of their prior wages—and they will have no choice but to try to go back to workplaces that Senate Republicans are turning into deathtraps. We could give workers the support they need to stay safe. Instead, Republicans are sending them out to die to protect a corporate bottom line.
Update, July 30, 2020: This post has been updated to note that a poll of Walmart workers on mask requirments was from April.
Correction, July 28, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the Fair Labor Standards Act as the Fair Labor and Standards Act.