Retailers and unionized retail workers are at odds over liability relief protections proposed by U.S. Senate Republicans as part of a COVID-19 relief package.
The liability relief protections proposed this week by U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, as part of a COVID-19 relief package dubbed the HEALS Act, have earned kudos from the retail industry, but not from the unions representing thousands of retail workers. The proposed protections include protecting businesses open during the pandemic from coronavirus exposure claims if the businesses took reasonable steps to comply with public health guidance or standards.
Among the legislation's other proposed measures are capping unemployment benefits based on previous earnings, and tax credits for expenses related to cleaning and personal protective equipment procurement.
Noting that "[f]ederal law should protect, not punish, ... employers when they can demonstrate they have followed safety guidelines and mandates issued by government authorities," Michael Hanson, senior EVP, public affairs at Washington, D.C.-based Retail Industry Leaders Association, said: “The proposal announced [July 27] creates a federal shield for employers against meritless COVID-19 claims. Leading retailers welcome the protection. During these incredibly challenging times, retailers want to dedicate their resources towards rebuilding their operations and rehiring employees, not on expensive legal fees required to defend against baseless claims.”
The following day, David French, SVP for government relations at the Washington-based National Retail Federation, observed: "While understanding that the HEALS Act introduced by Majority Leader McConnell has a long way to go before Congress agrees to a final compromise, we are very pleased to see the targeted and temporary liability protection for businesses and schools as well as a package of economic stimulus provisions through direct aid to individuals and a hybrid extension of enhanced federal unemployment insurance. These important steps will continue progress toward sustaining the reopening of the economy. Also, allowing eligible businesses to take a second Paycheck Protection Program loan addresses the uncertain length of the crisis, and the package includes critical tax provisions that will help offset the enormous costs of personal protective equipment and allow more businesses to utilize the enhanced employee retention credit."
Food retailers have similarly embraced the proposed liability protections.
“The pandemic has created unprecedented operating conditions and the food industry has evolved to implement new and often changing guidance in numerous areas, including social distancing face coverings and enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols,” noted Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of Arlington, Virginia-based FMI-The Food Industry Association. “Our industry’s status as critical infrastructure poses special responsibility that the industry has embraced; it should not also carry with it the extraordinary economic risks that would result from the actions by those looking to exploit this crisis. We need liability protection that acknowledges the extraordinary efforts during this national emergency of food industry workers and the companies that employ them.”
Referring to liability relief as “essential,” Sarasin called on Congress to pass the liability protections in the next COVID-19 response bill.
To reinforce the food industry’s essential status, FMI placed an ad in the July 28 edition of The Wall Street Journal to ask Congress to pass liability protections in the next COVID-19 response bill.
“We have gone to great lengths to protect our employees and the public from virus exposure,” said Greg Ferrara, president and CEO of the Arlington-based National Grocers Association (NGA), which represents the independent grocery sector. “We are encouraged the Senate bill would avert a tide of frivolous and unfounded lawsuits filed against grocers simply for staying open to serve the public.”
Addressing the other proposed provisions, Ferrara observed: “The supermarket industry has changed drastically over the last several months, requiring grocers to extend more resources and staffing towards handling increased demand and maintaining a safe atmosphere for employees and customers. The unemployment and tax credit provisions are an important first step in ensuring independent grocers can continue to operate safely and retain and recruit a qualified workforce.”
“NGA supports the inclusion of liability protections, an unemployment compensation fix, and tax credits in the Senate legislative package,” added Chris Jones, NGA’s SVP of government relations and counsel. “However, we hope that Congress and the White House can work quickly to pass a federal aid package that includes other top NGA priorities of rewarding frontline workers and strengthening federal nutrition programs.”
The Senate Republicans’ proposed provisions earned a much less enthusiastic response from the nation’s unionized retail workers, however.
Accusing the lawmakers of “callously prioritizing shielding corporations from liability if their workers get sick on the job,” Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations, noted: “Instead of siding with corporations over workers, the Senate should immediately take up the Heroes Act, which includes an enforceable emergency workplace standard that will require companies to protect their workers on the job. This House-passed bill also provides much-needed relief to working families, jump-starts the manufacturing of personal protective equipment here in the United States, and provides necessary funds to local and state governments and schools.”
Walsh went on to encourage the Senate “to do what’s right and to pass urgently needed relief that prioritizes the safety and needs of workers and communities.”
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, introduced a bill that would suspend federal income taxes for essential workers up to an annual income cap set at the highest level of pay for an enlisted person in the U.S. Armed Forces. Additionally, the bill would provide suspension of federal payroll taxes for essential workers who earn up to $50,000 annually. Ernst's FRNT LINE Act is supported by FMI, among other retail and food industry groups.