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In Stalled Relief Bill, Provision Gives Businesses Liability Protection

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Meanwhile, talks of a new coronavirus relief bill in Congress have stalled again. Republicans and Democrats say they've been getting closer to a deal on a stimulus package designed to direct $900 billion to measures to help the economy weather the pandemic. Negotiators are rushing to reach that deal before some of the earlier relief money assembled by Congress, including unemployment benefits, runs out for millions of people at the end of the month - and this at a time when food banks and other aid groups say they are already getting overwhelmed.

So what's the holdup? One of the biggest is a provision Republicans want to include in the bill that would shield businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits. Democrats have long rejected making a liability shield part of the package. We wanted to better understand what's at issue, so we've called Eli Rosenberg. He is the labor reporter for The Washington Post, and he's been covering the ongoing negotiations.

Eli Rosenberg, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ELI ROSENBERG: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: First, could you just explain, as briefly as you can, what a liability shield means in this context and who's behind it?

ROSENBERG: There is a push in Washington to create a provision that would shield companies, local governments, institutions like universities, hospitals, other businesses from lawsuits filed by workers or customers saying that they sustained some injury or damage from getting an infection, either, you know, from going to work or going to shop or at a store or eat at a restaurant.

This measure has sort of been floated since the spring. It actually initially surfaced really early on in the pandemic. Some mask manufacturers wanted a shield from lawsuits from people who got sick despite using their product. Congress obviously acted on various stimulus measures at the time. But starting in the spring, business groups started pushing a broader liability shield that would apply, again, to their businesses, groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

And pretty soon, Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell started saying that a provision like this was going to be a must, a redline for them in negotiations over further stimulus measures for the economy.

MARTIN: But Democrats have called this a deal-breaker for a new COVID relief package, these liability protections. Now, why is that? Why are they opposed to it?

ROSENBERG: Well, we have to step back and look at the broader context here. Workplace transmissions haven't been studied but are believed to be a significant driver of infections across the country so far. We know hundreds of thousands of workers have gotten sick in industries like health care, working in assisted living facilities. We know grocery workers have gotten sick. Infections and huge outbreaks connected to meatpacking plants have been a major issue in many communities during the pandemic so far.

And you add to that what has been a relatively soft approach to regulation taken by the Trump administration. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is in charge of upholding workplace safety across the country, has declined to issue an enforceable standard that workplaces would have to comply to about the coronavirus. Instead, it's issued only recommendations that have been softened with words like if feasible and when possible.

So, you know, against that backdrop, Democrats, labor unions, other advocates have said that lawsuits are sort of an important recourse for workers who have been largely left on their own on safety issues, at least more than they should be.

MARTIN: So what does the reporting indicate? As you said earlier, that - the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that this is necessary to prevent this avalanche of lawsuits that would halt an economic recovery. Has that happened? Like, what does the reporting show?

ROSENBERG: When this issue was first being floated in the spring, it was a drastically different situation in the country. We - it was the beginning of the pandemic still. The economy was in freefall, and obviously, there was a lot of concern about businesses that were trying to reopen, that they were going to be met with this huge number of lawsuits that would make reopening even harder for them.

We're now nine months into the pandemic. And at least so far, that flood of lawsuits has just not materialized. According to various accounts out there - there's a legal database, Lex Machina, that has counted 234 personal injury and wrongful death cases filed against companies for virus-related issues as of the end of November. So you could be just talking about 234 lawsuits out of, you know, more than 16,000 personal injury and wrongful death suits that are not related to the coronavirus filed in that time. So we're really looking at more of a drop than a flood right now.

MARTIN: Well - so Senator McConnell isn't part of the bipartisan group that's actually negotiating this recovery bill. But twice this week, he's offered to drop the demand for this liability shield if Democrats put aside their demand to include additional state and local aid in the package. So what can you tell us about that?

ROSENBERG: We know these negotiations have been tricky, to say the least. Those aid packages that Congress is trying to renew, a lot of those programs expired at the end of July. You know, an estimated 12 million workers are expected to be pushed off of unemployment rolls by the end of the year. So, you know, critics on the left certainly say that those provisions, which are so important to keeping the economy afloat, are being held hostage by a somewhat unrelated issue.

Republicans, obviously, have been saying since the spring that this is still a really important issue - that, you know, recently, even if the flood of lawsuits hasn't materialized yet, that doesn't mean it won't in the future. And this is important to keeping business running in this country.

MARTIN: That was Eli Rosenberg. He is a labor reporter for The Washington Post.

Eli Rosenberg, thank you so much for talking with us today.

ROSENBERG: Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SBTRKT FEAT SAMPHA SONG, "HOLD ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.