We are all adapting to the new normal of navigating COVID-19, with innovative approaches emerging. But not all are good ideas. A case in point is the Republican leadership’s proposals to immunize businesses from accountability if they follow “government guidelines” for operating “safely.” They make it sound reasonable, but when you take a closer look, the proposals would actually jeopardize both workers and consumers and damage our economic recovery.
Many companies are doing their best to address COVID-19 by keeping their workers and customers safe and offering paid leave to employees who show symptoms. But immunizing all companies based on compliance with guidelines is problematic.
First, no authoritative guidelines exist. The Trump administration recently blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s detailed reopening guidelines for certain industries because they were overly prescriptive, according to The Associated Press.
The only other federal guidelines, from the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, offer "recommendations” rather than actual rules. Similarly, some states have created their own guidelines, but they vary greatly.
We know that certain industries have failed to take reasonable precautions to protect the public and their workforce. What standards will they be held to? Even if such guidelines existed, accountability should never be based solely on compliance with standards. In fact, under current law, compliance with government standards is already a defense from liability; if the standards are sound and a business has complied, companies face no liability. However, all the facts must be considered, including whether the standards are sufficient and applicable to the particular situation.
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The Chamber of Commerce, which is supporting immunity, recently wrote that a “one-size-fits-all regulatory approach is simply impossible when talking about adapting safety measures for every workplace in America.”
This is exactly why the flexibility that exists in current rules works — to determine whether a business acted reasonably toward consumers and workers. Congress shouldn’t add another layer of broad immunity based on phantom guidelines and politicians’ whims.
Sally Greenberg is the executive director of the National Consumers League.
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