In late April, poultry processor Pilgrim’s Pride transferred Maria Hernandez from her usual job to another department at its plant in Lufkin, Texas. Her sons say Hernandez’s bosses didn’t give her proper protective gear. And they didn’t warn the 63-year-old that she would be working in a hot spot where other workers had already fallen ill from COVID-19.
When Hernandez, who worked at the plant for 30 years, started feeling sick, she continued to show up for her shift for fear of being fired. On May 8, she was found dead in her home — one of more than 90 meat and poultry plant workers who’ve succumbed to the virus. More than 17,000 have already been infected.
Hernandez’s sons are now suing Pilgrim’s Pride for putting their mother in harm’s way. But if Senate Republicans get their way, that check on corporate misbehavior may prove yet another victim of the pandemic.
Having failed to control the outbreak, Republicans are now trying to make it easier for companies to get away with putting their employees at greater risk. In the current stimulus package negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier in July that he would not budge on his demand that employers receive a shield against lawsuits over COVID-19. And he hasn’t.
“The American people will not see their historic recovery gobbled up by trial lawyers who are itching to follow the pandemic with a second epidemic of frivolous lawsuits,” the Kentucky Republican said recently on the Senate floor.
Everyone is eager to see a strong economic recovery. But letting corporate executives cut corners on employee safety will only prolong the public health and economic crisis. Infections and deaths for ordinary employees will increase.
There is nothing frivolous about that.
Democratic leaders have opposed this exemption for employer liability. They are pushing for tighter workplace health and safety standards and say the best way for companies to protect themselves against potential COVID-19-related lawsuits is to closely follow those guidelines.
Workers need the right to pursue legal recourse against employers that engage in life-threatening recklessness. They would still need to prove their cases in court, where the legal burden for plaintiffs is already too high.
Without the right to sue, the playing field between bosses and workers would be even more tilted. The fact that Maria Hernandez, a faithful 30-year employee, was afraid she’d be fired if she stayed home speaks volumes about the inequities that already exist. She risked her life in order to work, and lost, while her boss, outgoing Pilgrim’s Pride CEO William Lovette, got a $15 million golden parachute.
If Republicans get their way, the company’s current top executives wouldn’t have to worry anymore about being held accountable for Hernandez’s death. Under McConnell’s proposal, corporate immunity for nearly all COVID-19-related cases would be retroactive to December 2019 and last through 2024.
For corporate CEOs, that’s like a five-year “get out of jail free card” for jeopardizing the health and safety of their workers while threatening the overall economic recovery.
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.