Employer liability is next coronavirus threat

As businesses around the country weigh the pros and cons of reopening, one question looms large: Could employers be held liable if employees contract COVID-19 while performing their jobs?

Debate over the answer has already begun influencing negotiations over the next round of coronavirus-relief legislation, with business interests and employee advocates lining up on opposite sides.

Republicans in the Senate, where they hold the majority, back broad measures to protect employers against lawsuits from employees who allege they were sickened at work. Democrats who control the House of Representatives say they want to preserve workers’ rights to sue if employers’ unsafe practices result in COVID-19 cases.

Generally, work injuries are covered by no-fault workers’ compensation programs administered at the state level. Employees who are hurt or sickened can receive benefits that pay for medical treatment and wage replacement. Employers are insulated from liability—unless working conditions were so unsafe that the employer might be considered grossly negligent.

That’s the fear if workplaces reopen before the coronavirus can be safely contained. A group of plaintiffs’ attorneys that solicits class-action suits nationwide says it has already received more than 10,000 coronavirus-related inquiries from employees.

On April 29, the AFL-CIO labor union and a coalition of consumer advocacy groups sent a letter to congressional leaders stating they “strongly oppose any legislation that would establish nationwide immunity for businesses that operate in an unreasonably unsafe manner, causing returning workers and consumers to risk COVID-19 infection.”

But Republicans are committed to making sure any additional coronavirus-relief legislation contains airtight protection against employee lawsuits. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.–Ky.) said May 1 that he would not support another coronavirus bill unless it insulates employers from liability.

A joint statement issued by McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.–Calif.) said, “As the nation continues fighting this pandemic and parts of our economy begin to emerge from shutdown, Senate and House Republicans are united in our demand that health care workers, small businesses and other Americans on the front lines of this fight must receive strong protections from frivolous lawsuits.”

McConnell told Fox News the demand was non-negotiable. “What I’m saying is we have a red line on liability. It won’t pass the Senate without it,” he said. Trump administration officials back McConnell’s stance.

Advice: Discuss your coronavirus liability exposure with your attorney. This issue will no doubt be addressed in the next round of legislation—one way or another.