Worker safety: Who gets protected?

Public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward. The blanket business immunity in SF2338 during COVID-19 comes with a failed record of protecting Iowa workers.

The COVID-19 crisis poses a dizzying combination of health and economic risks, and it has forced us to rethink the ways in which our public policies protect us against those risks. The underlying logic of the CARES Act, for example, was based on the assumption that sharing public spaces — especially workplaces — posed a grave threat to the public health. Its benefits — including a limited program of paid leave and a relatively generous expansion of unemployment insurance — were designed to make not working and sheltering in place possible.

That instinct was right but its execution was dismally flawed. State unemployment systems could not begin to manage the avalanche of claims. The virus flourished in settings — most starkly meatpacking plants — that ploughed ahead as “essential” businesses. And states impatient to open up again did everything they could to discourage workers from accessing the new federal benefits — a point Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend all but conceded in testimony before Congress last week.

From the first hint of the virus to the rush to reopen, Iowa has done perilously little to protect its workers, their families, and their communities. Safe workplaces are pretty clearly defined in the guidelines developed by both the CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). But there is nothing in state or federal law that compels employers to follow them, and ample evidence that many are not. Even in the midst of local outbreaks, county health directors lacked the authority to shut down production. “They just don’t get it,” as the Tama County emergency management coordinator, complained in the midst of an outbreak at the National Beef plant there, “They will keep going until all of their employees have this virus. They would rather risk their employees’ health and keep their production going.” As Governor Reynolds coldly reminded us in late May: “Our recovery is contingent on our ability to protect both the lives and the livelihoods of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other.”

Those priorities came into sharper focus this week. In a brief and largely aimless session, the Iowa Legislature offered scarcely a passing reference to the health and economic insecurity facing Iowa’s working families. They did, however, jump to address the insecurity of Iowa employers — offering up blanket immunity from COVID related claims coming from workers or consumers.

The “COVID-19 Response and Back to Business Limited Liability Act” (Senate File 2338) requires that any claims of exposure to the virus meet a standard of “reckless disregard” or “actual malice.” Employers “shall not be held liable for civil damages for any injuries sustained from exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19 if the act or omission alleged to violate a duty of care was in substantial compliance or was consistent with any federal or state statute, regulation, order, or public health guidance related to COVID-19 that was applicable to the person or activity at issue at the time of the alleged exposure.” Since such regulations or guidelines are virtually non-existent, it is hard to imagine what such threshold might look like.

At a time of such peril and uncertainty, this is a remarkable and damning expression of our state’s priorities. It is a solution in search of a problem; there has been no stampede of frivolous damage claims — in Iowa or elsewhere. And it ignores the more obvious and equitable tack, which is to protect the workers in the first place, and allow them to refuse work (and draw unemployment benefits) if that protection is not sufficient. “Everybody wins when businesses follow clear, science-based guidelines to protect health and safety,” as The New York Times put it in a recent editorial. “Workers and customers are less likely to get exposed to the virus, and businesses are less likely to get exposed to litigation.”

Now, more than ever, our public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward; on whom they protect, and whom they do not. The blanket immunity offered Iowa businesses by SF2338, alongside our abject and continuing failure to offer any meaningful protection for Iowa’s workers, fails that assessment on all counts.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.