Moderate Republicans Push For Stricter Coronavirus Workplace Standards

Throughout the pandemic, the White House has resisted pleas from workplace safety experts and Democrats that it enact an emergency regulation to protect workers from the coronavirus.

But with cases surging in states across the country, a handful of moderate Republicans are joining their Democratic colleagues in calling for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to put a safety rule into effect. Ten GOP lawmakers sent a letter to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday urging him to work on the standards in upcoming legislation.

The lawmakers are proposing a trade. They say they support the push from party leaders to shield businesses and schools from coronavirus-related litigation so long as OSHA implements and enforces the workplace safety rules. Paired together, they argued, the two measures would protect workers while giving businesses “peace of mind” when it comes to litigation.

“Simply put, if businesses abide by the OSHA standards, they should be protected from baseless lawsuits,” wrote the Republicans, led by Reps. David McKinley (W.Va.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.). 

The letter comes as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made new liability protections his “number one” priority for the next major piece of coronavirus legislation ― above funding for schools or preserving expanded unemployment benefits for the millions of workers who’ve lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) previously rejected the liability idea. 

The letter was spearheaded by McKinley, an engineer with experience in the construction industry. McKinley’s office discussed the immunity-for-safety-standards trade with North America’s Building Trades Unions, a powerful alliance of construction unions within the AFL-CIO labor federation. The NABTU indicated to McKinley that the alliance might support such a deal if the language was strong on enforcing safety standards.

Safety hawks have hammered President Donald Trump’s OSHA leadership for going soft on employers during the pandemic. The agency has issued employer guidance to protect workers, but none of it is enforceable by law. The moderate Republicans are proposing legally binding rules for different industries in exchange for the lawsuit protections.

Democrats and their allies in the labor movement have assailed McConnell’s push for liability protections, so it’s not clear what kind of support such a proposed trade might generate.

Asked Tuesday about giving employers immunity from lawsuits, Pelosi told CNN that Republicans should instead be working on the OSHA standard.

“Does he mean essential workers have to go to work ― if they don’t they lose their unemployment insurance ― and if they get sick there, they have no recourse?” she asked of McConnell.

McConnell has said Senate negotiations on the next aid package will begin in earnest next week when senators return to Washington from a recess. They’re up against a tight deadline for reauthorizing a $600 boost to weekly unemployment payments that is set to expire at the end of the month, as well as an academic year set to begin with no national plan to help schools reopen safely amid a surge in coronavirus cases. 

The House already passed a bill re-upping the jobless pay as well as providing $100 billion for schools and requiring OSHA to issue stricter standards, legislation that McConnell brushed aside.

Senate Democrats have proposed $450 billion for schools. McConnell and McCarthy have said that what schools really need is the same thing that businesses need: liability protection.

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