COVID-19

The hangup on the Hill: Who’s liable for COVID infections at work or school?

Kimberly Adams Dec 11, 2020
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Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images
COVID-19

The hangup on the Hill: Who’s liable for COVID infections at work or school?

Kimberly Adams Dec 11, 2020
Heard on:
Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

One of the big sticking points in the stalled negotiations for a COVID-19 relief package up on Capitol Hill is liability protection.

Specifically, what kind of liability should businesses, schools and universities face if someone gets sick, or even dies, after contracting the virus at work or at school? And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans want broad liability protections in any deal.

Let’s say you run a university. One of your students catches COVID-19 and sues, arguing that it’s the school’s fault. You’d probably have the same concerns as Dr. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana.

“Clearly, we have concerns about certain liabilities. For example, if someone were to catch COVID-19, it’s not clear where they were infected, that we want to be sure that it’s not normally attached to the institution,” he said.

Verret is an immunologist by training, and he said assigning blame and potential legal liability is tough when a virus is spreading everywhere.

“Where my mixed feelings come in, I think it’s important that we should have a clear guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and others on what are best practices,” Verret said.

Because that’s been unclear, from a legal standpoint, throughout the pandemic. Various states and cities have different rules.

Karen Harned runs the Small Business Legal Center at the National Federation of Independent Business, which has been pushing for a liability shield.

“We also think that it is important to make sure that if somebody is filing a complaint, they have to really do their due diligence,” she said — diligence to prove they were infected at the business they’re suing. 

Other small business groups, including the progressive Main Street Alliance, say business owners are much more worried about keeping their doors open right now — and getting federal aid to help — than they are about potential lawsuits.

“If you’re acting reasonably, if you’re abiding by what your governor or mayor or whomever says, that’s going to be something you can fall back on to say, ‘Well, what more should I have done?'” said Davis Senseman, a lawyer who works with Main Street Alliance of Minnesota.

And that, Senseman said, is a liability defense on its own.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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