In early October, Harvard researchers sounded an alarm. They released a report showing a pattern of coronavirus deaths surging soon after workers filed requests for workplace safety assistance from the US Labor Department. The takeaway was clear: workers are desperately begging the government to help protect them from a deadly pandemic, the government has been unresponsive, and lots of workers have subsequently died preventable deaths.
Today, a little more than a month after the study came out, the federal government is finally responding: a bipartisan group of Senate and House lawmakers have announced legislation to shield corporations from lawsuits when their lax safety standards kill more workers.
In practice, the legislation, which is being tucked into a larger COVID relief package, is a holiday-season gift for corporate donors. It would strip frontline workers of their last remaining legal tool to protect themselves in the workplace — at the same that time the unemployment system is designed to financially punish those workers if they refuse to return to unsafe workplaces during the pandemic.
The legislation comes not only as workers continue to die, but also as roughly 7 to 9 percent of the total COVID death count are “take home” infections traced to employees unwittingly spreading the disease to their families and friends.
A Hostage Situation From a Dystopian Sci-Fi Film
At the behest of corporate lobbyists, the liability shield initiative has spread like a virus in America’s political system. As we first reported, it coursed through state legislatures across the country after New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo responded to a COVID massacre in nursing homes by shielding nursing home executives from lawsuits — after a health care lobby group funneled $1 million into his political machine.
Senate Republicans in Washington then copied Cuomo’s liability shield legislation and pasted it, word for word, into their last COVID stimulus proposal in July.
Unable to pass that federal liability shield legislation on its own, lawmakers from both parties have now come together in a grand show of post-election bipartisan unity to help their corporate donors create a hostage situation that’s something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. Their proposal predicates long overdue and desperately needed unemployment assistance on the condition that corporations are given a get-out-of-jail-free card when their profit-maximizing business practices extinguish the lives of employees.
Support from Democratic lawmakers for the liability shield legislation comes after the same health care lobby group that drafted New York’s law has poured more than $11 million into House and Senate Democratic super PACs.
The party, though, doesn’t seem to want its own voters to know the details of the deal it is cutting with the GOP. In a comically on-the-nose attempt at a bait and switch, Democratic senator Joe Manchin touted the legislation as only financial aid for communities — leaving out the fact that it includes a liability shield for corporations.
Today I'm announcing a bipartisan, bicameral framework for a COVID-19 relief package. This proposal would direct more than $900B to help small biz, healthcare providers, & unemployed Americans who need help now. It’s time to put politics aside & do what’s best for our country. pic.twitter.com/XkTGvWNdrw
— Senator Joe Manchin (@Sen_JoeManchin) December 1, 2020
US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been one of the few Democratic lawmakers to spotlight what’s really going on. Last week, she tweeted: “If you want to know why COVID relief is tied up in Congress, one key reason is that Republicans are demanding legal immunity for corporations so they can expose their workers to COVID without repercussions.”
A Long-Term Campaign to Disempower Workers
The bipartisan initiative aims to obscure its Dr Evil–level of depravity by superficially depicting the liability shield as merely temporary. But that seems like a ruse, as indicated by private equity mogul and Utah Republican senator Mitt Romney, who said the federal COVID liability shield provision “provides a temporary suspension of any liability-related lawsuits, state or federal level, associated with COVID-19, giving states enough time to put in place their own protections.”
Though full legislative language has not been released, the goal seems clear: to give state legislatures more time to permanently prevent workers from suing employers who endanger them, and to permanently block their families from mounting such lawsuits when the workers die.
Notably, lawmakers announcing the proposal did not point to a spate of frivolous wrongful death lawsuits that corporations have been warning about as a rationale for the liability shield. Instead, as the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense recently noted,
Of more than 4,100 COVID-19 related lawsuits filed, only 75 are for wrongful death or injury as a result of getting sick at work. Two-thirds fall into three categories — insurance disputes, prison cases and civil rights cases, including challenging shelter-in-place orders.
The liability shield legislation is not some standalone cause — it should be understood as the culmination of a much larger, long-term campaign to remove countervailing forces and give capital supreme power over labor.
Over the last few decades, the government — through legislation and court rulings — has weakened unions, which have used collective bargaining to protect workers’ rights; limited class action lawsuits and punitive damages, which are designed to punish corporate misbehavior; and gutted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is supposed to enforce the weak workplace safety laws still on the books.
Now come liability shields, laundered as a necessary COVID salve, but which are really designed to permanently remove the last remaining deterrent to corporate abuse.
Large employers already knew that a hobbled OSHA would — at most — give them the equivalent of a parking ticket for killing workers. Indeed, the agency has refused to even issue formal safety standards during the outbreak — a posture designed to make it harder to hold corporations accountable for any unsafe practices at all. The situation is now so unregulated and so bleak that in one situation, corporate managers were allegedly betting on the number of COVID deaths that would happen at a meatpacking plant.
With liability shields, those same employers will know that they can get away with all kinds of cost-slashing and corner-cutting that endangers workers and denies them access to basic protective gear.
In other words, corporations will know they can drive the COVID body count ever higher, and they won’t even have to worry about being called into a courtroom to answer for their crimes.