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We need a safe workplace, not an escape valve for employers | Column
Immunity from lawsuits provides exactly the wrong incentives, writes a UTampa professor.
William M. Myers is associate professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Tampa and is a board member of the American Constitution Society, Tampa Chapter.
William M. Myers is associate professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Tampa and is a board member of the American Constitution Society, Tampa Chapter. [ Provided ]
Published Aug. 7, 2020

Frustration is mounting over stalled congressional action on a new COVID-19 relief package. In Florida, we need relief now. We need help protecting our children, families and neighbors; we need resources for those struggling to find work; and we need policies that ensure our safety at work.

The Senate’s latest bill, the “Safeguarding America’s Frontline Employees to Offer Work Opportunities Required to Kickstart the Economy Act,” or the SAFE TO WORK Act, is not what we need. The bill, which represents Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “red line” in negotiations with Democrats, provides employers with immunity from lawsuits when their workers get sick from coronavirus.

McConnell and other Republicans argue that immunity is needed to protect employers from frivolous lawsuits by employees who contract the virus at work, but there is nothing frivolous about COVID-19 and its effects as evidenced by the number of deaths and hospitalizations nationwide — especially here in Florida. The bill incentivizes an employer’s implementation of lackluster or inadequate safety provisions in the workplace without consequence, shifting the burden on to workers who have no power to change the conditions under which they must work and no legal remedy should they contract the virus.

If, for example, an employer decides that maintaining a safe workplace is too difficult and posts a policy on how to limit the transmission of coronavirus, then the employer would be exempt from both federal and state labor laws. To add insult to injury, the SAFE TO WORK Act allows employers to sue their workers for demanding safer working conditions due to coronavirus risks.

Three of the largest sectors of employment in Tampa Bay (Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas counties) are education and health services (209,700 workers), professional and business services (231,800 workers) and leisure and hospitality (113,100 workers). All of those sectors depend on personal contact. And all of them will be worse off if Sen. McConnell’s bill becomes law. Unless we have confidence that workplaces are safe, both workers and customers will be reluctant to walk through the door.

Ask yourself, if you knew a business faced no legal consequences for ignoring COVID-19 and allowed it to spread among employees, how likely would you be to eat, shop, get a haircut, go see a dentist, go to school? Would you feel safe walking through those doors?

Who is most likely to suffer as a result of the removal of safe working conditions? Workers aged 16-24 years, men, Hispanics and Blacks, single people, and people without a Bachelor’s degree have continued to work in-person at higher rates according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. No matter who you are or what kind of job you have, you should be able to do it safely.

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Florida has been a coronavirus hotspot for transmissions for weeks with no signs that spread is decreasing or under control. We should be focused on making sure businesses and workplaces are doing everything they can to limit their workers’ and their customers’ chances of contracting coronavirus. The SAFE TO WORK Act does the exact opposite. It therefore puts all of us — and our economy — at risk.

William M. Myers is associate professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Tampa and is a board member of the American Constitution Society, Tampa Chapter.

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