By Anna Ready Blom
WASHINGTON—Senate Republicans unveiled legislation this week marking their wish list for a fourth COVID-19 stimulus package. A key pillar of the Senate Republicans’ plan is legislation that would provide liability protections from COVID-19 exposure claims. The SAFE TO WORK Act, introduced by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), would protect businesses, schools, universities and nonprofits from legal claims provided they took responsible measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
NACS has been advocating for liability protections since this spring when the convenience retailing industry was designated by the Department of Homeland Security as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure workforce. The convenience store industry has remained open throughout the pandemic to meet the essential needs of the communities we serve—providing fuel and food to first responders, health-care providers and other frontline workers. Staying open, however, has come with its challenges as retailers have tried to comply with oftentimes vague and evolving health guidance. Prioritizing the safety of their employees and customers, retailers have instituted intensive protocols such as investing in personnel protective equipment, increasing cleaning and sanitation practices and providing social distancing markers and dividers, among other measures.
Even with these efforts, there are individuals who are pursuing legal claims that the COVID-19 virus was contracted on a business’ premises. The cost of fighting such litigation could be crippling for businesses around the country, including within the convenience store industry. For this reason, NACS strongly supports the SAFE TO WORK Act.
The SAFE TO WORK Act will:
- Create a federal cause of action for coronavirus exposure claims and set the statute of limitations for pursuing such claims to one year.
- Provide a safe harbor to businesses from claims related to COVID-19 exposure so long as those businesses made reasonable efforts to comply with mandatory standards or public health guidelines. However, it will not provide a safe harbor for bad actors and businesses where there has been gross negligence or willful misconduct.
- Preempt all state laws. It imposes a floor on liability protection, and states are free to further limit liability for coronavirus exposure but not to have laws that increase liability.
- Allow businesses who receive meritless demand letters related to the virus the ability to bring a suit against the plaintiff to recoup the business’ legal fees.
- Protect businesses from Americans with Disabilities Act or labor law claims challenging the COVID-related health measures the businesses put in place while attempting to follow relevant guidance and regulations.
- Cover the time period of December 2019 through October 2024, or the end of the national public emergency, whichever is longer.
This week, congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House have begun negotiations for what will be included in the next stimulus package. NACS has been leading a broad coalition of essential industry associations asking for liability relief. These groups sent a letter to Congress yesterday asking that the SAFE TO WORK Act be included in that package.
“As the nation continues the process of reopening, it would be tragic if businesses that had kept their doors open to serve their communities were forced to close because of the high costs of dealing with frivolous lawsuits. For these reasons, we enthusiastically support the SAFE TO WORK Act, S. 4317, which would shield businesses who are doing their best to serve their neighbors while protecting them from COVID-19 exposure, and call upon Congress to incorporate and pass this legislation in the next COVID relief package,” states the letter.
NACS is calling on members of the convenience store industry to contact their members of Congress today through the grassroots portal to urge them to include liability protections for responsible businesses in the stimulus package.
Anna Ready Blom is NACS director of government relations.