April 29, 2020 / 4:55 PM / a month ago

U.S. consumer groups urge lawmakers against shielding businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits

(Reuters) - U.S. consumer advocates are urging Congress to resist growing demands by companies for protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits as states start to ease pandemic restrictions and businesses begin to reopen.

FILE PHOTO: A man stands in front of a Modell's store that is closed as retail sales suffer record drop during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., April 15, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan R Smith

Led by Public Citizen and the Center for Justice and Democracy, the groups said in a letter sent on Wednesday to U.S. House and Senate leaders that “legal liability is one of the most powerful incentives we have to ensure that businesses operate safely.

“Any recovery requires the public to have confidence that businesses are operating as safely as possible,” said the letter, signed by more than 100 groups. “Establishing legal immunity for businesses that operate unsafely would do the opposite of instilling public confidence.”

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump ordered meat-processing plants to stay open to protect the food supply. The move was designed in part to give liability protection to the operators of the plants, which have been hit by outbreaks of COVID-19.

The letter, signed by large unions such as the AFL-CIO and Teamsters, highlights the sharpened focus on legal liability as Congress and the Trump administration weigh a fourth stimulus bill to support an economic recovery from the pandemic.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have been lobbying lawmakers for measures that would protect against coronavirus-lawsuits over business disruptions, wages, leave policies and injury or death caused by the outbreak.

One House Republican told Reuters legal immunity in some form has near universal support in the party.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said he would insist on protecting businesses from lawsuits as a condition for another stimulus package.

As more businesses reopen, regulation is also shaping up to be a major point of tension between business and workers who fear becoming infected.

Wednesday’s letter noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplaces, has “stepped back from its role to protect the health and safety of workers during this pandemic, and is dangerously relying on employers to self-police.”

Despite soaring unemployment, workers have risked their jobs to protest and demand better safety at fast food restaurants, hospitals, warehouses, food processing plants and other businesses that remained open during the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Chamber, one of the most powerful business lobby groups, urged the Trump administration and state and local leaders to resist new regulations. A heavy handed approach could lead to regulators fining businesses “when they find a sneeze guard out of place,” the chamber said.

Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Tom Brown

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