McConnell’s Pandemic Priority? Protecting Businesses, Not Workers

Despite pandemic unemployment compensation expiring at the end of this month, Congress has yet to pass a new coronavirus relief package.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is insistent that Congress’s next coronavirus relief package protect corporations from lawsuits brought on by workers who get sick on the job. In fact, he’s called corporate immunity his “red line” for the next bill. (McConnell has been singing the same tune since April, when he said he would “insist” the next coronavirus relief bill include a corporate immunity provision.)

McConnell  Pandemic Priority? Protecting Businesses, Not Workers
If McConnell and Senate Republicans get their way, businesses that fail to enforce reasonable precautions against transmission of the coronavirus would be immune to lawsuits filed by employees or patrons who contract the virus as a result of the business’s negligence. (McConnell Center / Flickr)

Democrats in Congress oppose any coronavirus corporate immunity clause.

“Why does Senator McConnell think that major corporations should be exempt from liability when they force their workers to come back and they get sick?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked.

Republicans in Congress introduced their version of a coronavirus relief package Monday, July 27, after rejecting the HEROES Act passed by the Democratic-controlled House in May.

The one trillion dollar bill, dubbed the HEALS Act, unsurprisingly gives businesses corporate immunity.

Corporate immunity protects businesses from their obligation to protect employees, consumers and patients from harm. If McConnell and Senate Republicans get their way, businesses that fail to enforce reasonable precautions against transmission of the coronavirus—such as mask-wearing and social distancing—would be immune to lawsuits filed by employees or patrons who contract the virus as a result of the business’s negligence.

McConnell  Pandemic Priority? Protecting Businesses, Not Workers
A Wall Street protester during the Great Recession in 2008. (Alane Golden / Flickr)

Part of McConnell’s plan is to give federal courts jurisdiction over medical liability and personal injury—which several Southern states are already doing. This makes it near impossible for an injured party to successfully sue because federal courts require both a higher pleading standard and a higher burden of proof on the part of the plaintiff.

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The corporate immunity provision that Sen. McConnell wants doesn’t stop there, however. It would also weaken, among other things, an employee’s ability to make a discrimination claim.

According to McConnell, a five year corporate immunity provision is necessary in order to protect businesses from a so-called “second pandemic” of litigation. So far, no such wave of litigation has occurred. 

Worker’s rights advocates fiercely oppose Sen. McConnell’s proposal, arguing it will cause undoubted harm to workers by forcing them to work in unsafe conditions, while relieving corporations of accountability.

Corporate immunity will incentivize businesses to “cut corners” to make up lost profits from the early months of the pandemic, says Remington Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen—meaning they won’t be obligated to spend money on creating a safe working environment.

Corporate Immunity’s Disproportionate Impact of Women Workers of Color

Workers of color—particularly women of color—will be disproportionately affected by corporate immunity. Due to structural racism, workers of color are overrepresented in essential industries like transit services, cleaning services, child care and health care. 

What’s more, the risk for people of color working in these industries is compounded by the fact that racism in medicine and discriminatory housing practices have led to people of color lacking access to quality health care and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than their white counterparts. 

Hugh Baran, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), says it’s critical to focus not only on opposing corporate immunity, but to simultaneously advocate for workplace safety standards and labor rights. 

Under the Trump administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not issued any mandatory coronavirus-related workplace safety standards. So far, only fourteen states have implemented comprehensive worker’s safety protection.

Take Action

If you want to further the fight against corporate immunity, make noise about this issue on social media and contact your representatives.

Now is also a great time to register to vote if you’re eligible in order to make sure your voice is heard in November.


Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.