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140+ Rights Groups Demand Congress Leave Corporate Immunity Provisions Out of Covid Relief Deal

"This would be the worst time to disincentivize businesses and employers from doing everything they can to protect the health and safety of working people and consumers."

Protesters rally at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 17, 2020.

Protesters rally at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 17, 2020. (Photo: Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A coalition of more than 140 civil rights, consumer advocacy, and labor organizations is demanding that Congress scrap any legislative provisions giving corporations immunity from coronavirus-related legal action as lawmakers race to strike a deal on a bipartisan relief bill before dozens of crucial federal assistance programs expire at year's end.

"We firmly believe that Congress must act swiftly to address the current Covid-19 crisis and are encouraged to see bipartisan efforts to provide desperately needed relief," the group wrote in a letter (pdf) to senators last Friday. "However, this relief should not come at the expense of the health and safety of consumers, workers, and patients."

Led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the coalition of 143 organizations warned that shielding corporations from accountability for exposing their employees and/or customers to the coronavirus by failing to take adequate precautions "would make the country less safe at the exact moment when the Covid-19 pandemic is entering a new, dangerous phase."

"This would be the worst time to disincentivize businesses and employers from doing everything they can to protect the health and safety of working people and consumers, including those in nursing homes and other congregate care facilities," the groups said. "Furthermore, any type of immunity would directly harm Black, Latino, and other workers of color who are overrepresented in 'essential' and in-person, reopened jobs—and expose them to increased risk of Covid-19 infection and death."

The demand from rights groups comes as lawmakers are still hashing out the details of a $908 billion bipartisan relief framework that has been endorsed as a starting point by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and President-elect Joe Biden.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers behind the plan—including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Mitt Romney (R-Utah)—is expected to release legislative text as early as Monday.

During a press conference last week, Romney said the legislative package will include a "temporary suspension of any liability-related lawsuits at the state or federal level associated with Covid-19, giving states enough time to put in place their own protections."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other progressives have raised alarm about the bipartisan proposal's inclusion of a corporate liability shield, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans have characterized as their non-negotiable "red line."

McConnell has claimed that without a liability shield, companies that reopen for business amid the coronavirus pandemic could face an "epidemic of lawsuits" from workers and customers who contract Covid-19—a warning that analysts have dismissed as baseless fear-mongering on behalf of corporate interests.

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In an appearance on MSNBC Sunday morning, Sanders slammed McConnell and other proponents of a corporate liability shield for attempting to give big corporations "carte blanche to ignore the safety needs of their workers."

"Mitch McConnell is saying we're gonna make sure that none of those corporations, no matter how irresponsible they have been, none of them are going to face any legal repercussions," said Sanders, who vowed last week to vote against the bipartisan package if it is not significantly approved.

Read the full letter from the civil rights coalition:

Dear Senator:

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the 142 undersigned organizations write to urge you to oppose any legislative provision that provides businesses with immunity from Covid-related lawsuits, including the so-called "Safe to Work" Act. We firmly believe that Congress must act swiftly to address the current Covid-19 crisis and are encouraged to see bipartisan efforts to provide desperately needed relief. However, this relief should not come at the expense of the health and safety of consumers, workers, and patients.

Granting immunity would make the country less safe at the exact moment when the Covid-19 pandemic is entering a new, dangerous phase. This would be the worst time to disincentivize businesses and employers from doing everything they can to protect the health and safety of working people and consumers, including those in nursing homes and other congregate care facilities.

Furthermore, any type of immunity would directly harm Black, Latino, and other workers of color who are overrepresented in "essential" and in-person, reopened jobs—and expose them to increased risk of Covid-19 infection and death. As cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities continue to grow out of control nationwide, and as millions of people continue to face economic catastrophe, it would be shameful to provide protection to actors who fail to take reasonable actions to keep workers and consumers safe. In other words, immunity shifts the burden of these employers’ decisions onto those individuals who, because of a history of structural oppression and economic marginalization, are among the least able to bear the cost of illness and death.

Congress must do all it can to decrease the rate of infection and death, curb the spread of the virus, and provide support and resources to people who are suffering from the health and economic consequences of this pandemic. The inclusion of any part of the "Safe to Work" Act—or any other provision granting businesses and employers any type of immunity—in a Covid relief package is both unnecessary and contrary to responsible public policy. Please see the  previous letter from The Leadership Conference and others on this topic. We urge you to oppose the inclusion of any immunity provision in a Covid package.

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