June 04, 2020

At Banking Hearing, Warren Pushes Back on GOP Proposal to Shield Businesses from COVID-19 Liability

"Giving companies a pass when it comes to the safety of their workers or their customers is not only morally bankrupt--it is bad economic policy. Keeping customers safe, keeping workers safe, is the only way we're going to re-open this economy."

Video of Hearing Exchange (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. - In a Senate Banking Committee hearing today, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pushed back on Republican proposals to shield companies from all liability for workers or customers getting sick at their business, and argued that keeping customers and workers safe is critical to our economic recovery.

The full transcript and video of her exchange with the hearing witnesses is available below.

Transcript: Warren Pushes Back on GOP Proposal to Shield Businesses from COVID-19 Liability
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs

Video (YouTube)

SENATOR WARREN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I want to start by thanking Senator Brown, Ranking Member Brown, for his comments today about what's happening around us. We can't come together and just ignore everything that's going on and the racist violence that has killed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. This has got to be a moment where we commit ourselves to change and to real accountability. And I hope that is where we will all be putting our energies.

I know that right now we are talking about how to get the economy open again, so I've got some questions about that for our witnesses. And let me start with you, Mr. Quaadman. The Chamber of Commerce has been hosting webinars on re-opening businesses, and recently at one of those webinars, Chamber President Suzanne Clark said, and I want to quote her here, "public health officials can say when government leaders can lift restrictions, business owners can open their doors, but employees have to be comfortable and consumers have to be comfortable if they're going to leave their homes."

So Mr. Quaadman, do you agree that employees and consumers are not going to feel comfortable leaving their homes unless they know that they're going to be safe when they go to work or conduct business? 

MR. QUAADMAN: The Chamber has taken a position throughout this pandemic that decisions need to be driven by data and by pronouncements by public health officials. We've also developed with our guides with reopening, as well as with our webinars, different guidelines that we've taken from various different sources for ways---

SENATOR WARREN: Let me just stop you there, Mr. Quaadman. I appreciate your going over all you're doing, but it was really a pretty simple question. Do you agree that customers and employees are not coming back until they feel comfortable that they're going to be safe? 

MR. QUAADMAN: Customers and employees should be safe going back into stores and into the marketplace. 

SENATOR WARREN: And they're not coming back if they don't feel safe? 

MR. QUAADMAN: That's what the data seems to show.

SENATOR WARREN: Right. Good, because I agree with you on that, but tens of thousands of workers have become sick, many have died, after being exposed to coronavirus in their workplaces. We don't have perfect data, but we do know that more than 9,000 health care workers have fallen ill with COVID-19, we know that grocery store workers and meat-packing workers have died, and in New York City alone, we know that more than 80 transportation workers have died from this disease. 

Now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Department of Labor, is charged with ensuring that workers are safe on the job--that's their job. A key way that OSHA does this is by investigating complaints and taking enforcement actions when businesses put employees at risk. 

So, Ms. Shierholz, you have served as chief economist at the Department of Labor, and you now study the labor market. Is OSHA on the case right now to help keep workers safe? 

MS. SHIERHOLZ: No, they are not, at all. And I think their record in this pandemic speaks for itself. Given the threat of the coronavirus and the huge number of essential workers who have gotten sick or died, it's absolutely clear that an Emergency Temporary Standard to address the increased risk is needed, but DOL under President Trump has decided not to issue one. And they are receiving thousands of COVID-19-related complaints, but OSHA has basically abdicated its responsibility for enforcing even the existing standard. They have issued only one citation related to the coronavirus so far. OSHA under the Trump Administration is not doing its job and frontline workers are paying the price. And we will all pay the price because we'll make it harder to re-open. 

SENATOR WARREN: So the agency that is tasked with enforcing protection for workers is essentially shrugging their shoulders as workers get sick and die. And instead of calling on OSHA to do its job, Republicans in Congress, and lots and lots of lobbyists, including the Chamber of Commerce, are calling for companies to be shielded from liability for anyone who gets sick at their businesses, whether it's workers or customers. 

Now, Ms. Shierholz, as you know, companies are not liable simply because a worker or a customer gets sick. Companies are liable only if they fail to take reasonable precautions, like if they jam workers together without masks or they fail to clean up common areas that everyone touches. So let me ask, does a liability shield for companies that make workers--does it make workers or customers any safer? Or does it bring in any more customers into the store to help in an economic recovery? 

MS. SHIERHOLZ: Thank you for that question, Senator. I want to be really clear about this. Removing legal accountability from businesses would not make people safer. It would jeopardize the health and safety of workers and consumers, and it would threaten the overall economic recovery. There have been a huge number of examples of businesses failing to provide workers with necessary protections, and that will just proliferate if businesses don't face any liability. It is important for reopening. 

SENATOR WARREN: So, thank you, and I'm sorry to run out of time here. You know, but it's really important to emphasize that giving companies a pass when it comes to the safety of their workers or their customers is not only morally bankrupt--it is bad economic policy. Keeping customers safe, keeping workers safe, is the only way we're going to re-open this economy. And to do that, we need to implement good safety standards that we apply across the board. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.