Over the next several days, lawmakers in Congress will be hard at work on a second economic stimulus package that’s expected to exceed $1 trillion. With the purported intent of keeping the American economy afloat as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Republican leaders in the Senate unveiled the HEALS Act, which includes a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for most American households and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for schools, health care facilities, and businesses, among other institutions impacted by COVID-19.
The bill is the counterpart to the HEROES Act, introduced by Democrats in the House of Representatives. That legislation includes a continuation of the $600 federal unemployment supplement and $1 trillion in funding for state and local governments, in addition to a second round of stimulus payments directly to Americans.
That $1,200 stimulus check — which has bipartisan support in Congress and the support of President Donald Trump — has, not surprisingly, gotten most of the attention. But tucked into the bill are liability protections for hospitals, schools, and businesses like restaurants. These provisions, broadly supported by Republican lawmakers and opposed by Democratic leadership, would prevent workers from suing their employers if they contract COVID-19 on the job.
As with all congressional stalemates, this second stimulus package will ultimately be resolved, likely before Congress is set to adjourn for a monthlong recess on August 7. Considering that enhanced federal unemployment benefits have already expired and many families are in dire need of that $1,200 check, it’s likely that these liability protections proposed by Republicans will be obscured by more immediate short-term needs. But this isn’t the time for Congress to let restaurants — or any other business — off the hook for putting their workers in danger.
What are liability protections?
Essentially, they’re provisions that would prevent workers from suing their employers if they contract COVID-19, with some key exceptions. Under the current system, most workers aren’t able to sue their employers when they’re injured on the job due to workers’ compensation laws, which require that employers pay for wage-replacement benefits and medical treatment instead of facing lawsuits over unsafe working conditions.
Generally, the only time that workers are able to sue their employers for injuries sustained on the job is when that business shows “reckless disregard” for the safety of its employees. In the case of the coronavirus, if a worker was able to prove that their employer was not following appropriate health and safety protocol to stem the spread of the virus, they may have grounds to file a lawsuit and seek compensation for getting sick.
That said, those laws only apply if an employer carries workers’ compensation insurance, which would pay for those medical bills and lost wages. Most states require employers to carry some kind of workers’ compensation insurance — Texas is a notable exception. But the restaurant industry is notorious for not having this kind of coverage. If a restaurant worker’s employer doesn’t have that insurance, that worker would typically have standing to sue the restaurant’s owners.
Is it likely that liability protections will be included in the second stimulus bill?
Business owners are generally very much in favor of these protections, which all but eliminate the potential for pricey lawsuits. According to Forbes, businesses are terrified that they will face a “wave” of lawsuits as they bring their employees back to work and those employees get sick. As such, businesses of all sizes have a major interest in ensuring that enhanced liability protections are included in the second stimulus package.
These businesses have a strong ally in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has described liability protections as a “red line,” and said that he won’t negotiate with Democrats over their inclusion in the upcoming stimulus bill. Meanwhile, most — but not all — Democrats are firmly opposed to the inclusion of liability protections. In an interview on Meet the Press on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Democrats would not support a bill in which these protections are included. “If you get sick, you have no recourse because we’ve given the employer protection,” Pelosi said. “And if you don’t go to work because you’re afraid of being sick and you have that job opportunity, you don’t get unemployment insurance. This is so unfair.”
Considering how far apart both parties are on the issue, there isn’t much time to come to a consensus before Congress’s upcoming recess. Democratic leadership has pledged to get a deal done before then, but it’s unclear how these liability protections will look in the bill that is ultimately signed by Trump.
How does this apply to restaurants and restaurant workers?
Because of their frequent contact with the public and the nature of dining spaces, restaurant workers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Countless workers across the country have contracted the virus, and many have died. If Republican lawmakers get their way, it would be nearly impossible for restaurant workers who get sick on the job to sue their employers to pay for medical expenses.
This is compounded by the fact that most restaurant workers lack employer-provided health insurance. According to one 2019 survey, only 31 percent of restaurants reported offering health insurance to their employees, and less than a quarter of those businesses provided workers’ compensation insurance. Without health insurance, paying medical bills associated with contracting COVID-19 is an extreme financial burden.
If the Democrats win this fight, these workers would have the ability to sue businesses that flout health and safety guidelines during the pandemic. A key issue here is that there is no federally codified set of guidelines that restaurants are obligated to follow in order to protect the health and safety of their workers, which could make it difficult for these workers to prove that their workplaces weren’t following the rules. Right now, there is no federal law that requires restaurants to close, or even inform the public, if a staffer contracts COVID-19, and very few states have implemented those rules. If there isn’t a definitive set of guidelines, how can restaurants be held liable for not following them?
That’s why lawmakers like Delaware Sen. Chris Coons also want the stimulus bill to include provisions for the creation of a comprehensive set of health and safety standards that would be overseen by an agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. According to the New York Times, Democrats seek to “establish an enforceable standard based on guidance from top federal health agencies, for workplaces to develop infection-control plans.”
Considering that restaurant workers are among the most vulnerable frontline workers during this pandemic, they deserve a much broader set of government protections than the businesses that employ them. Restaurants may not be able to afford expensive lawsuits, but restaurant workers are even less likely to be in a position to afford tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills because their workplace didn’t implement infection-control standards.
Restaurants should not be allowed to self-govern when the stakes are literally life and death, especially considering the industry employs some of the most economically vulnerable workers in the country. Right now, restaurateurs are worried about whether or not their businesses will survive the pandemic, and they are justified in that fear. The abject failure of governance on almost all levels is putting this industry at risk, but it shouldn’t be up to workers who are paid $2.13 an hour — or even $15 or $20 an hour — to keep restaurants afloat. Livelihoods are at stake, but so are actual lives.