In Congress, American Lives Come Second to Corporate Profits

The country is in dire need of a new COVID-19 relief package to help working families cope with the worst health and financial effects of the ongoing pandemic. Instead, leaders in Congress are failing them.

The Republican-led Senate unveiled the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (“HEALS”) Act, a $1 trillion legislative package which goes out of its way to kowtow to corporate interests at the expense of the nation’s safety and wellbeing. While Congress has taken up pro-corporate measures in the past, the HEALS Act still manages to be surprising in its cruelty.

The “L” stands for “Liability Protection” for Negligent Corporations

As part of the HEALS Act, Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Cornyn (R-Tx.) introduced the Safe to Work Act, an extreme proposal that would essentially give businesses, schools, hospitals, and others complete immunity from any legal claims related to COVID-19 infection or death for the next five years. As deaths and hospitalizations continue to surge in the United States with no sign of slowing down, the proposal looks a lot like a congressionally-sanctioned hall pass to kill workers and consumers while worsening the pandemic’s effects.

Under the Safe to Work Act, state laws health and safety standards would be overridden and the bar that businesses would have to clear to show compliance with government guidelines would be set low. Additionally, the worker or consumer bringing the case would be held to difficult-to-clear procedural standards that are likely to kill cases before they are even brought.

Since COVID-19 hit the United States in early March, there have been many reports of outbreaks ravaging nursing homes and unsafe workplaces like the Smithfield meat-processing plant. If Sens. McConnell and Cornyn have their way, virtually none of the victims or their families would be able to seek legal remedies for the immense pain caused by corporate neglect and corner-cutting. Justice would be sacrificed for the sake of forcing the economy open under unsafe circumstances, which can only cause further death and injury. Liability immunity creates perverse incentives.

Worse still, there is little evidence that the so-called “tidal wave of lawsuits” the HEALS Act is supposedly intended to prevent is a real threat. Despite the number of infections and deaths linked to negligent businesses, fewer than 200 COVID-19 personal injury cases have been filed so far. The HEALS Act’s disregard for this reality exposes it for what it really is: a cynical attempt to further rig the system in favor of corporate power. The proliferation of forced arbitration clauses in consumer and worker contracts that severely restrict legal actions against corporations and the spread of false narratives about frivolous litigation have already stripped untold numbers of Americans of their last line of defense against abuses of power. Blanket liability immunity now would be one of the last nails in the coffin of our justice system.

People don’t matter, profits do

When we consider the protections the HEALS Act leaves out or weakens, the prioritization of liability immunity becomes even harder to stomach. Critical assistance for Americans on the brink of disaster is being sidelined in favor of coddling unsafe businesses.

The HEALS Act has no provisions to extend the eviction moratorium first created by the CARES Act in March and offers no other significant relief for tenants. The moratorium, which expired July 24, was estimated to apply to 12.3 million renter households. Additionally, data collected by U.S. Census Bureau shows that 12.5 million renters were unable to make their last housing payment and 24 million have little or no confidence that they will be able to make their next payment.

Even with an eviction crisis looming, the architects of the HEALS Act also deemed it appropriate to take a hatchet to another crucial lifeline for struggling Americans: unemployment. Over 30 million people are currently receiving expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act which are set to expire at the end of July. Instead of extending the benefits, the HEALS Act calls to cut them from $600 per week to $200 per week until October 5.

Unsafe businesses do not warrant cover from lawmakers when the workers and consumers who actually keep the country running have their safety net cut out from under them.

With little being done to safeguard the livelihoods of the tens of millions of families and individuals feeling the pandemic’s worst effects, it is unconscionable to also cut off their access to justice purely to protect corporate bottom lines. The middle of the worst public health disaster in living memory is no time to slam the courthouse doors on Americans demanding safe conditions.

National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) is a nonprofit association of attorneys and advocates committed to representing customers’ interests.