Opinion | Finance

Employer and worker health are two sides of this same coin for economy

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Never before has the country experienced such an abrupt and profound shift in economic fortunes. In the last four months since the coronavirus pandemic started, we have gone from record low unemployment to the worst recession since the 1930s. With trillions in aid doled out to workers and employers, we have started the first halting steps toward a recovery that could be upended by new surges of illness. Uncertain is too weak a word to describe the social and economic future we face.

Anxiety is high as states reopen and people head back to work. Workers, like those in meat packing facilities and agriculture or service work, fear exposure to a potentially lethal disease. Employers are understandably worried about losing their businesses due to the downturn and about a possible flood of lawsuits from workers and customers with claims that their businesses are responsible for any illness or death.

Added to the brew of anxiety is the leverage applied by states against workers to get back the job or face the loss of unemployment benefits. There must be a balance of interests to ensure the safety of workers and the viability of businesses. One side coercing the other is a prescription for polarization and distrust during a time when shoring up cohesion in social and economic ties is of paramount importance.

Unfortunately, most of the pressure seems to be exerted on behalf of employers in favor of a quick restart, while the safety of workers is in limbo. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued guidance around sanitation, personal protective equipment, and other measures for reopening businesses. While it provides clear guidance, there are no legal obligations for employers to follow it.

As a result, there is less pressure on employers to thoroughly prepare the operating environments for reopening. Meanwhile, Congress is stymied with safety legislation stalled in the House, and Senate leaders signaling they will not pass any more relief packages without provisions insulating employers from lawsuits. Whether such added protections are necessary is very much up for debate. All this sets forth a skewed playing field that favors the concerns of business over those of workers.

While employers are the ones that provide the jobs to get the economy moving again, generous unemployment benefits are not what is really standing in the way of a return to work. It is the fear of contracting the coronavirus, a sentiment that is shared by an overwhelming majority of the public. It will be difficult to persuade workers and the broader public that elected officials, regulators, and businesses are truly serious about protecting workers and customers as long as the "reopen at any price" sentiment is seen as animating the current policy process.

As the federal government moves forward with new legislation, we must remember what the economy actually is. It is made up of human beings working and exchanging the products of their labor with one another. It is not only made up of the balance sheets of the companies that organize and account for that exchange. Preserving human capital through health and safety measures is just as important and, in the long term, perhaps more so than simply restarting the economy. Protecting workers in the economy serves the interests of everyone moving forward.

This is the time to think creatively about solutions that can both protect workers and ensure that employers operating in good faith are not left to the tender mercies of the trial bar. Rather than providing additional legal protections for businesses, the federal government could borrow a page from the vaccine injury programs that help insure vaccine manufacturers against any accidental injuries related to their products.

Given the uncertainties of when and how individuals might contract the disease, perhaps independent and impartial arbitration rather than legal proceedings might be useful in adjudicating claims. Regardless of which federal and state policies are adopted, the principle should be protection for employers who make good faith efforts to protect their workers from the coronavirus but not for those who exhibit negligence.

We value workers and employers. We should not choose between them. At the same time, we do not need a policy and regulatory scheme that results in the loss of irreplaceable lives, with the brains and muscle that power our economy, in our effort to speed up the recovery.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Matthew Leger is a research analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

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