Over the past several weeks, frontline workers – who are busy saving lives in hospitals, driving trucks to make crucial deliveries, stocking grocery shelves to help us feed our families, and ensuring that public transit continues — have been rightfully applauded as heroes. They have put themselves on the line for our safety and well-being. Accordingly, the Illinois Workers Compensation Commission (IWCC) made the pragmatic choice to ensure that these frontline workers – who face a heightened probability of contracting COVID-19 at work – automatically get properly compensated for the risks they are taking for us, with medical bill payments and disability benefits.
IWCC Ruling Overturned as Big Business Pushes for Liability Shield
But the powerful big business lobbies in Illinois immediately went to work, and the IWCC was forced to rescind this pragmatic rule change to protect frontline workers following a restraining order from a Sangamon County Circuit Judge. Nonetheless, even with the IWCC rescinding the new rule, frontline workers who can prove that their COVID-19 diagnoses occurred (1) in the course of their employment and (2) arose out of their employment can still get medical bills paid and reimbursement for lost wages if they miss work because they have contracted the virus.
Big business, however, could not sit still. Their lobbies have been going on the offensive, trying to ensure that they incur no costs whatsoever for frontline workers who fall ill at work. Last month, a consortium representing some of the nation’s largest companies — including the International Foodservice Distributors Association, the International Franchise Association, and the National Association of Convenience Stores — wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, arguing that their businesses were “good Samaritans” putting themselves at risk of frivolous lawsuits by trying to reopen.
“These businesses are committed to doing the right thing by remaining open for business and serving the American people during this crisis,” the letter said. “But there is an emerging threat to their ability to continue serving customers: efforts by some to take advantage of the current crisis to file unfounded lawsuits against them alleging that customers and employees were infected with COVID-19.”
In an interview last week on Fox News Radio, McConnell sided with his big business donors as he detailed the fight he would be taking on for them.
“That’s going to be my red line,” McConnell said about a liability shield for businesses in the next round of stimulus negotiations. “Trial lawyers are sharpening their pencils to come after healthcare providers and businesses, arguing that somehow the decision they made with regard to reopening adversely affected the health of someone else.”
Both McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have demanded that the next stimulus bill include greater liability protections for employers, with McConnell specifically saying that he would oppose federal funding for state and local governments unless the package includes a liability shield. Additionally, White House officials are likely to seek a liability shield as part of the next stimulus package, and they have indicated that President Trump may issue an executive order and unilateral regulatory changes to curtail the liability of businesses.
Trump himself has said that Congress needs to “take liability away from these companies” because he wants “the companies to open and to open strong.” His chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow also told reporters that the White House does not believe that a business should be held liable if a customer later tests positive for the coronavirus. And the administration has already granted more limited liability exemptions for companies involved in producing and distributing key medical supplies through a declaration signed in March by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Passing the Buck on Business Costs
With a liability shield in place, employees will still lose wages, incur medical expenses, and experience pain and suffering if they contract COVID-19 at work, but these costs would not be borne by their employers. McConnell, Trump, and their cronies want to shift the cost for medical bills on to group insurance carriers and union health and welfare funds, while the cost for lost wages would be passed on to taxpayer-funded state unemployment systems that are already stretched thin. In turn, this liability shield would reduce the incentive for employers to take appropriate precautions to avoid litigation, putting both their workers and the public at greater risk.
While Republicans like McConnell and Trump are pushing to shield businesses, Democratic Senators Tammy Baldwin and Tammy Duckworth have taken a different approach to the crisis, introducing the “Every Worker Protection Act of 2020.” Instead of focusing on protecting employers from legal liability if their employees get sick, the legislation tries to put in place protections to keep workers from getting sick in the first place, requiring “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) within seven days to protect health care and other employees from exposure to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”
Chicago Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Fighting for You
Regardless of Congress’s future actions, it should be clear that corporate interests are trying to continue their assault on the legal protections of American workers. At GWC Injury Lawyers LLC, we have stood proudly with labor since the firm’s inception.
GWC has recovered over $2 billion in verdicts and settlements on behalf of injured clients. We have the experience, the determination, and the reputation of success you need to help get you and your family the justice you deserve.
If you have been injured in the workplace, contact GWC today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Chicago workers’ compensation lawyers. You may call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.