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U.S. Chamber Lobbies Against Rules, Liability as States Reopen

April 28, 2020, 8:53 PM

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is opposing calls for new health and safety regulations to govern reopenings after weeks of state-imposed lockdowns, while also seeking to curb the kinds of lawsuits that businesses can face.

The nation’s largest business group wants employers to make many of the public-health decisions on what protections are needed to keep employees and customers safe.

“Those in favor of a regulatory approach envision government bureaucrats enforcing a rule book of regulations,” said the group in a letter Monday to President Donald Trump, state governors and other local officials.

The letter comes as business groups outline a preference for a unified approach to reopening the U.S. economy. The chamber seeks optional guidelines that workplaces can implement.

The chamber is also pushing the administration and Congress on another longtime priority -- limiting the risk of lawsuits that businesses could face -- in this case over the virus, said Neil Bradley, the chamber’s chief policy officer. Bradley said many of those changes would require legislation, including on the state level.

Some worker-safety advocates said it’s wrong to minimize oversight. “It is the lack of worker protection regulation that is endangering the food supply and threatens our ability to re-open the country,” said David Michaels, who ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama. “The thousands of meat processing workers infected with the coronavirus are powerful proof that many employers ignore even common-sense recommendations,” said Michaels, now a George Washington University public health professor, in an email.

The chamber’s letter cited fear of penalties for minor infractions, including a “sneeze guard out of place, an employee using the wrong mask, or two employees five feet ten inches apart, not the mandated six feet.” The trade group lauded businesses that “have improvised and innovated in critical ways to protect the health of their employees and customers.”

Individual businesses know better how to move people around their floor plan to minimize contacts than government rules can foresee, Bradley told reporters on Tuesday. He said that essential businesses that remained open have shown they can do that, although he conceded that some businesses had fallen short.

“Invariably there’s going to be a place that didn’t get it right,” he said when asked about the looming breakdown of the U.S. meat supply chain due to explosions of infections among workers at processing plants. “I am confident that a lot more people, a lot more businesses, are going to get it right when given the opportunity, the appropriate guidance and the ability to tailor that guidance to their workplace.”

Trump plans to order meat-processing plants to remain open, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

The chamber wants to see a liability shield for companies as they reopen in the form of “very temporary, very targeted protection for companies that are following the official government guidance and who are acting in a responsible way to protect employees and customers.”

Trump on Tuesday said he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson Foods Inc.’s liability, which had become “a road block” for the company.

Some safety experts see the issue differently. The tens of thousands of workers that already are infected are “really powerful proof that just guidelines are not enough to stop this deadly epidemic,” said Deborah Berkowitz, who served as an OSHA chief of staff in the Obama era. Berkowitz now directs the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project, a pro-labor nonprofit.

The chamber is calling for guidance on reopening to be “generally consistent across federal, state, and local governments.”

Other trade groups, such as the Business Roundtable, have also sought nationwide approaches to restarting the economy.

Two top trade groups for the retail sector on Monday called for allowing warehouses and distribution centers nationwide to reopen all at once. The two groups want governors to decide how and when to reeopen stores to customers.

States have diverged in their plans, with timelines that vary from days to more than a month, as they try to balance collapsing local economies with potentially deadly local health conditions.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that malls, restaurants and movie theaters could re-open Friday, even as California Governor Gavin Newsom said his state’s stay-at-home order would stand for the time being. Ohio is also pursuing a reopening in coming days.

(Updates throughout from first paragraph)

--With assistance from Josh Eidelson.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Ben Brody in Washington, D.C. at btenerellabr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Sara Forden at sforden@bloomberg.net

Bill Faries, Paula Dwyer

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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