Senate Judiciary Committee calls for national safety guidelines amid liability hearing

Greg Nash

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish national safety guidelines for industries amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

During a hearing held to examine employer liability, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) underscored the need for a nationwide standards to ensure both physical and legal safety for workers and businesses. 

“Seems to me that one primary goal out of this hearing is to get the standards in place for business, for universities, for schools, whether they come from the CDC, OSHA they need to be out there so people can understand what’s expected of them. And if they do what’s expected, they don’t need to worry about getting sued. The big hole in the puzzle right now is the standard,” Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at the hearing.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier on Tuesday that he and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) are working on legislation to expand liability protections for businesses to support companies against coronavirus-related lawsuits. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat, pointed to the thousands of coronavirus cases and dozens of deaths linked to meat packing plants where workers are given inadequate safety equipment during the hearing Tuesday.

“It’s critical for the federal government to issue specific COVID-related standards for work places,” she said.

She added, “It has been reported that the administration has prevented the CDC from issuing its own detailed guidelines.”

Recent reports have indicated that top administration officials shelved the CDC’s guidelines for reopening the country. CDC Director Robert Redfield said this week that the agency’s guidance for reopening the country was “in draft form” and not ready to be released. 

Kevin Smartt, CEO of Kwik Chek Convenience Stores in Texas, encouraged legislation against unwarranted liability. 

“For those of us trying in good faith to do what we can, we should not be hit with unjust lawsuits,” he said.

Anthony Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, fought back on the idea of protections. 

“This is not about being anti-business, this is about being pro-safety. Immunity laws could send dangerous messages that the safety of these workers is not the company’s responsibility,” he said at the hearing.

The business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has pressured the White House and Congress to include liability protections for essential and nonessential industries in another round of coronavirus relief aid. 

Executive director of the National Employment Law Project Rebecca Dixon criticized business groups including the Chamber and the National Restaurants Association, for lobbying for a liability shield and claimed that they also want legal immunity from other worker protections.

Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, fought back in a statement to the Hill, stressing that businesses want temporary safe harbor protections.

“The business community is not seeking blanket immunity nor are we seeking any permanent changes to legal liability. As we’ve said across many issues, the legislative response to this pandemic must be timely, targeted, and temporary, and we must be focused on a highly-coordinated private-public strategy to get the American economy back on track safely and sustainably,” Bradley said.

The calls for national guidelines continued throughout the hearing, including from Sen. Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) who stressed the need for science-based standards.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the government should “get the darn standards done and quit goofing off.”

Tags Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Sheldon Whitehouse
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