President Donald Trump said during a press briefing Monday evening that his administration is aiming to shield corporations from legal responsibility for workers who contract the novel coronavirus on the job, a move that the Chamber of Commerce and right-wing advocacy groups are aggressively lobbying for as the White House pushes to reopen the U.S. economy against the warnings of public health experts.
“We are trying to take liability away from these companies,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question on the subject. “We just don’t want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong. But I’ll get you a legal opinion on that.”
The president claimed that his administration had not previously discussed the issue of corporate liability, but the New York Times reported that business executives raised the matter with Trump in a conference call last week.
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An “issue of great concern to the executives on the call,” according to the Times, “was the need to address the liability companies could face if employees got sick after returning to work, given the possibility that workers who felt that they were brought back too soon — or were not placed in a safe environment — could sue en masse.”
Additionally, the Washington Post reported earlier this month that Trump administration officials discussed including in the next stimulus package “a waiver that would clear businesses of liability from employees who contract the coronavirus on the job.”
Watch Trump’s remarks:
REPORTER: [If companies] have employees come back to work and they get sick will these companies be liable?
TRUMP: I’ll give you a legal answer to that when we look it up.
REPORTER: You guys haven’t discussed that yet?
TRUMP: Nobody’s discussed it, no. But we will now. pic.twitter.com/oDIo6BQbdS
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) April 20, 2020
In a memo to its members last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the most powerful business lobbying group in the nation — said that legal action from workers who are infected by Covid-19 on the job is “perhaps the largest area of concern for the overall business community.”
The Chamber of Commerce “argues the sheer number of lawsuits could overwhelm businesses,” Roll Call reported.
“Businesses say they keep their workplaces safe,” Roll Call noted, “but the memo indicates that major corporations privately acknowledge that many so-called essential employees will get sick or die.”
Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed organization, is also urging lawmakers to protect corporations from responsibility for exposing their workers to the coronavirus.
As Common Dreams reported last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been flooded with thousands of complaints from workers in recent weeks accusing employers of violating federal coronavirus guidelines and failing to provide adequate protective equipment.
Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in a series of tweets last week that “the whole point of making employers liable for risking the lives of their staff is to prevent them from exposing their staff to undue risk.”
“Businesses are asking for the right to expose their workers to fatal risks with no consequences. It’s bad economics and bad policy,” said Wolfers. “If this tweet sounds to you at all anti-business, let me be clear: I am absolutely against businesses profiting by exposing their workers to unconscionable risks of death.”