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Lawmakers Split Over Liability Protections In Pandemic Relief Bill Negotiations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Millions of families and businesses struggling through the pandemic recession are still waiting for Congress to come to their aid. Well, one of the big sticking points has been a Republican demand to protect businesses from COVID-related lawsuits. Worker advocates are raising red flags about that provision. Let's bring in NPR's Scott Horsley. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So we've got just days left on the congressional calendar. And meanwhile, there is a group of lawmakers - a bipartisan group, we should note - making a big push for a relief bill. But this argument over the liability provision has been blocking things for months. Do they have a plan to get around that?

HORSLEY: They do. We'll see if it works and passes muster with congressional leadership. But their plan is to carve the relief package into two parts. And in one part, they've put all the things that are broadly popular, like aid for unemployed workers and financial help for small businesses and money to help get those vaccines out to the population. And then shunted over into the other piece are the more radioactive elements of the plan, where support is much more partisan. That is aid to state and local governments, which Democrats want but a lot of congressional Republicans are skeptical of, and then this liability measure that Republicans have put a premium on but most Democrats are reluctant to see. The idea is not to let the partisan fight over those measures hold up everything else as they've been doing for months now.

KELLY: Although meanwhile, outside Congress, worker and consumer advocates are raising fresh objections to the liability measure. Explain what they're saying.

HORSLEY: Yeah, they are. The liability measure has been advertised as a way to protect employers from COVID-related lawsuits from workers who get sick. But these critics say the legislative language actually goes a lot farther than that and would, in fact, shield employers not only from private lawsuits but even from enforcement actions by the state and federal governments.

Debbie Berkowitz is a former OSHA official who's now with the National Employment Law Project. She says the way this measure is written, it would let employers off the hook for an unsafe workplace so long as they had considered making fixes, even if in the end, the employer decided those fixes are, well, too expensive or just too much trouble.

DEBBIE BERKOWITZ: It's like a driver who gets stopped by an officer for speeding to say, listen; I thought about complying with the speed limit but decided it just wasn't feasible. And I'm in a rush, so I'm not going to do it.

HORSLEY: You know, critics say OSHA, the federal workplace safety agency, has already been too lax in its response to this pandemic. And this bill would further weaken worker protections not only at the federal level but at the state level as well.

KELLY: Well, and what's the case from the other side? Why do businesses say they should get this kind of protection?

HORSLEY: Well, first, businesses and their GOP allies dispute the idea that they're trying to render the government watchdog agencies toothless. But certainly, if businesses had their way, a lot of them would prefer to see OSHA make suggestions rather than issue orders and then back those orders up with fines, for example. Businesses often argue they know their workplace better and are in a better position to decide what's safe for workers than, say, government regulators in Washington. I will say, though, at least early on the pandemic, I heard from a lot of businesses who would have liked more guidance from the federal government. Many of them felt as though they were flying blind and having to improvise. Harold Kim runs the Institute for Legal Reform at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

HAROLD KIM: We don't have a playbook for a novel coronavirus like this, and so it has been an evolution.

HORSLEY: Kim says businesses have sometimes found themselves having to navigate between conflicting guidance from the federal government and their local officials.

KELLY: And meanwhile, today we are watching the very first vaccine shots being given here in the U.S. How does that affect this debate?

HORSLEY: Well, it certainly offers hope on the horizon, but it's going to be months before the vaccine is widely distributed. And, of course, we're seeing thousands of deaths each day in the meantime. Republicans have dialed back their request for a liability shield. They're now asking for just 12 months or until the public health emergency is over. Initially, they had wanted liability protection from employers all the way through 2024.

KELLY: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "THE THEORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.