Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is demanding that Congress use the next Covid-19 stimulus bill to shield corporations from legal responsibility for workers who contract the novel coronavirus on the job, throwing his support behind a proposal pushed in recent weeks by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other right-wing organizations.
The Kentucky Republican said in a statement Monday that companies could be hit with "years of endless lawsuits" if Congress doesn't provide employers with liability protections as states begin reopening their economies.
"The idea companies can be held accountable is absolutely crucial to protecting workers."
—Debbie Berkowitz, National Employment Law Project
"McConnell wants to immunize companies from liability when they make their workers go back to work, and those workers inevitably get sick," tweeted The Atlantic's Adam Serwer.
In a Monday interview on Fox News Radio on the heels of his statement, McConnell said he considers liability protections for companies a non-negotiable demand for the next coronavirus stimulus legislation. Progressives are calling for a package that provides more protections for frontline workers and the unemployed.
"That's going to be my red line," McConnell said. "Trial lawyers are sharpening their pencils to come after healthcare providers and businesses, arguing that somehow the decision they made with regard to reopening adversely affected the health of someone else."
Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, tweeted that McConnell is arguing that companies "should have the right to be negligent, and suffer no consequences for negligence that kills their staff."
"At the present moment, do we want to tweak incentives to make employers more negligent, or less negligent?" Wolfers asked.
Here's the argument: Tort law makes employers liable for being negligent with the lives of their workers and customers. McConnell is arguing that they should have the right to be negligent, and suffer no consequences for negligence that kills their staff. https://t.co/tX3eDTjnRP
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) April 27, 2020
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) called McConnell's demand for corporate immunity "subterfuge" in an interview on MSNBC Tuesday morning, but did not rule out the proposal as part of a broader relief package.
Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told Politico that "the House has no interest in diminishing protections for employees and customers."
McConnell's comments came a week after President Donald Trump said the White House is looking for ways to protect companies from legal action by workers who are infected with Covid-19 on the job.
"We are trying to take liability away from these companies," Trump told reporters during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing last Monday. "We just don't want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong."
The Washington Post reported last week that the Trump administration is exploring the possibility of issuing through executive action "a liability waiver that would clear businesses of legal responsibility from employees who contract the coronavirus on the job."
"In recent days, the White House has considered whether the liability waiver should apply to employees, too, for instance to include a waiter who fears being sued by a customer," the Post reported. "This idea would require congressional approval, and its fate among Democrats is unclear."
Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker safety and health program at the National Employment Law Project, called the push for a liability waiver for corporations "horrible."
"The idea companies can be held accountable is absolutely crucial to protecting workers," Berkowitz told the Post. The proposal to shield companies from liability, she said, "is one of the most appalling things I've heard in the context of this crisis."