Millions of Americans are struggling during what should be a joyous time of year, yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is holding Covid-19 relief hostage. His ransom? Total immunity for corporations that recklessly endanger consumers and workers during the pandemic.
For months, McConnell has insisted that Congress take action to protect corporations alleged to engage in wrongdoing.
For months, McConnell has insisted that Congress should take action to protect corporations that are alleged to engage in wrongdoing and endanger their employees, consumers and patients. Companies that don't provide protective equipment or mandate physical distancing in the workplace, for example, would face no civil liability when their workers become sick.
Even as Americans go hungry and confront homelessness, McConnell is trying to leverage the coronavirus emergency to greenlight corporate abuse, instead of helping vulnerable families.
Worse, he is lying to the American people about his motivation, claiming that an "epidemic" of coronavirus-related lawsuits must be addressed. The actual epidemic, of course, is Covid-19, taking thousands of lives every day and sickening the very workers businesses depend on for their profits.
Eight months into the pandemic, lawsuits related to Covid-19 exposure are few and far between. According to data from the law firm Hunton Kurth Andrews, which tracks Covid-19 lawsuits, there are only 383 lawsuits in the entire country related to coronavirus exposure. Compare that to the over 15 million confirmed U.S. Covid-19 cases, leading to over 290,000 deaths.
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The cases that have been filed represent some of the grossest instances of corporate abuse. For example, workers at a pork processing plant sued alleging that management literally took bets on how many employees would catch the virus. Other cases allege horrific patient abuses at nursing homes or workplaces that forbid employees from using protective gear.
A pandemic is no reason to eliminate people's constitutionally guaranteed rights in the court system. To the contrary, civil justice helps keep Americans safe. When businesses have acted creatively and quickly to protect public health, they deserve our praise. Shielding bad actors from accountability is a slap in the face to businesses that have made the necessary sacrifices for public health, like restaurants that have moved operations outside or mom-and-pop stores that have provided employees with proper protective equipment.
Without scrutiny of allegations of corporate abuse in the courts, there may not be any justice for victims at all. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency responsible for protecting workers, has closed over 10,000 complaints, most without conducting inspections. The citations it has issued are tiny slaps on the wrist. McConnell is pushing for even fewer worker protections, tying up Covid-19 relief to put down a welcome mat for corporations knowingly putting employees in harm's way.
Shielding bad actors from accountability is a slap in the face to businesses that have made the necessary sacrifices for public health.
Nobody should be confused about why Covid-19 relief is stalled. Democrats and Republicans have both compromised on the size and type of assistance. There is broad agreement to prevent safety net programs from expiring at the end of December: pandemic unemployment insurance, assistance for struggling small businesses and student loan relief.
Our communities cannot afford to wait any longer for federal resources. Their budgets are at the breaking point as they try to meet people's dire needs in the face of plummeting revenue. These programs feed hungry kids, help people keep roofs over their heads and provide Covid-19 testing. They are critical lifelines that families need.
Impunity for reckless corporations — the "get out of jail free" cards that McConnell seeks — are merely a giveaway to the big corporate donors that he serves.
There's no question: In addressing the coronavirus, Congress must prioritize the American people, not protect big corporations.