McConnell’s virus lawsuit ban far worse than advertised
GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON—Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell’s ban on lawsuits through 2024 against firms that don’t protect workers and consumers from the coronavirus is even worse than advertised, the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health reports, and an inspection of the measure’s underlying text confirms.

The GOP Majority Leader’s bill is actually S4317, introduced July 27 by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. McConnell is the top co-sponsor. It bans not just lawsuits involving company exposure of workers and customers to the virus, but coronavirus-related suits under most labor laws, too. The exceptions: Workers comp laws and the original National Labor Relations Act.

Your employer breaks the Occupational Safety and Health Act by not protecting you against the coronavirus? You can’t sue.

Your CEO discriminates against you—because of the virus–by race or sex or gender or religion or other factors, violating Title Vii of the Civil Rights Act? You can’t sue.

Your HR department shorts your minimum wage due to the coronavirus? You can’t sue.

Your grocery store boss pays you straight time, not overtime, when you toil extra hours stocking shelves due to the coronavirus? You can’t sue.

Your supervisor won’t accommodate your disability—including disability due to the coronavirus and its aftereffects–so you can work? You can’t sue.

Medical tests show you’re genetically disposed to diseases, such as diabetes, that make you a coronavirus risk? You can’t sue.

Your company president suddenly closes your plant for good, without telling you 60 days in advance, under the Warn Act, because of the coronavirus? You can’t sue.

You’re older than 65 and at a higher risk of catching the virus, so you get fired? You can’t sue.

“A proposal to exempt employers from COVID-related enforcement of health and safety laws, fair labor standards and other worker protections is completely unacceptable and cannot be part of any pandemic relief package,” said NACOSH Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez, using the official name for the coronavirus. Its pandemic has swept the U.S.

“This is a dangerous proposal that relieves corporations and employers from providing safe workplaces, impacting all communities and exacerbating this pandemic,” she added.

Specifically, Cornyn’s measure is McConnell’s “red line” for letting lawmakers OK any coronavirus relief. And Section 181 of Cornyn’s bill reads:

“Notwithstanding any provision of a covered federal employment law, in any action, proceeding, or investigation resulting from or related to an actual, alleged, feared, or potential for exposure to coronavirus, or a change in working conditions” the virus causes, “an employer shall not be subject to any enforcement proceeding or liability” if the firm “generally followed” federal standards, knew it had to comply, and tried to do so.

The “covered federal employment laws” listed in S4317 were not just coronavirus relief bills. The big ones were the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—which bans discrimination by race, sex, religion, gender or other factors—and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which mandates the minimum wage and overtime pay.

The McConnell-Cornyn lawsuit ban, which other Republican senators signed onto, also bars workers from suing firms for violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Warn Act, which is also known as the plant closing law, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 12-year-old Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

Naturally, McConnell didn’t mention any of this when he discussed his lawsuit ban on the Senate floor on Dec. 9. Cornyn hasn’t said a word about his own bill during the brouhaha.

“I suggested both sides drop what seemed to be the most controversial demand in the eyes of our counterparts,” McConnell claimed. “Democrats continued to oppose common-sense legal protections university presidents have been begging for, and Republicans see no need to send huge sums of money to state and local governments.”

The state and local funding and the McConnell-Cornyn lawsuit ban are the two big-ticket items hanging up any progress on any money for suffering workers, firms, schools, states, cities, mass transit systems, the Postal Service and first responders.

“Negotiating 101 suggests we set those two controversial pieces aside and plow ahead with a huge pile of things we agree on,” McConnell said. “But that would require both sides to truly want to get an outcome. Democrats poured cold water on that,” he charged.

Needless to say, corporate lobbies marshalled their forces behind Cornyn’s original S4317, his so-called “Safe To Work Act.” Open Secrets, which compiles lobby reports, said 134 organizations, mostly from business, registered to lobby for the legislation.

The Chamber of Commerce led the way, part of its $59 million in total lobbying spending this year. The National Federation of Independent Business—a key player on the radical right—joined in. Others included CVS, the Northern Trust bank, Uber, the drug lobby Pharma, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, an oil “seven sister,” ConocoPhillips.

So did Yale University. And the National Collegiate Athletic Association wants protection for its members against lawsuits from the dozens of athletes who tested positive for the virus.

Foes of Cornyn’s bill included the Service Employees, the American Association for Justice and the ACLU, but backers of McConnell and Cornyn far outnumbered them.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.