As businesses reopen across the country, we should not forget about the essential businesses that remained open during the pandemic to provide critical goods and services to Americans. Essential businesses and employees, from grocery and convenience stores to medical and emergency personnel, answered the call to continue going to work in this unprecedented time. Now, these businesses are at additional risk of being sued, which could have devastating consequences — even if they are found to be innocent.
When a customer contracts the coronavirus, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the place he or she became infected. As the Centers for Disease Control has stated, the virus has achieved “community spread,” meaning it has spread to the point where the sources of the infection are often unknown.
But, since only a few businesses were open in the early days of the pandemic, it is a lot easier, and more likely, for those looking to file lawsuits to blame essential businesses.
No one wants to shield reckless businesses from lawsuits, but those that have instituted safety precautions to protect customers and workers should not have to fight unfounded lawsuits. The cost of challenging these lawsuits in court could cause small businesses to shut down for good, which will remove critical resources from communities when they need them the most.
Over 2,800 coronavirus-related lawsuits have already been filed; 52 are allegations directly related to conditions of employment, which include exposure to the virus or lack of protective gear at work. We can expect more in the future.
Addressing the matter is a federal, not a state, responsibility, since workplace-safety issues are regulated at the federal level, and it was the federal government that designated essential businesses as part of the critical infrastructure workforce. It is incumbent on Congress to step up and address this issue.
In fact, liability protection for essential businesses has been an important discussion on Capitol Hill recently. While Republican leaders have said inclusion of liability protection is their red line in the next relief package, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have expressed their opposition. They argue corporations would quit providing safety measures such as Plexiglas dividers and hand sanitizer if they knew they couldn’t be sued.
However, we are seeing moderate Democrats come out in support of these protections for essential businesses.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Christopher Coons said he would support some form of liability protection legislation, as long as it also protects workers. “The simplest and most powerful solution to liability protection is to have a science-based, enforceable standard for the protection of employees and customers,” Coons said. Like some other lawmakers, Coons wants the federal government to establish national safety standards that businesses must agree to follow in exchange for receiving liability protection.
Congress should make the liability protection retroactive to the start of the pandemic.
Essential businesses were critical during the pandemic. Hospitals and emergency responders were on the front lines, putting their health and safety at risk to save lives. Convenience and grocery stores provided food, fuel, medicine, and other essential goods to help families survive. Communities across the country depended on these businesses and employees during the pandemic, and Congress should step up and protect them.