Partisan Divide on Liability Shield, Jobless Aid Starting to Ease

May 29, 2020

Congress may be inching toward compromises on issues vexing large employers in a potential next COVID-19 relief bill, including liability protections and the disincentives to return to work related to the $600 unemployment insurance premium.   

Potential liability shield yet to be defined: As the GOP continues to work on a bill to protect businesses from COVID-related lawsuits, a group of Senate Democrats appears to be open to considering liability protection in exchange for a national workplace safety standard.  Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is working a bill that would require “higher standards of proof” for COVID-related lawsuits, but the details have not yet been released.  Any deal, however, could involve a trade-off.  Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Chris Coons (D-DE) said they would be open to enacting liability protection if Republicans would agree to an emergency OSHA regulation specifically addressing COVID hazards in the workplace.  HR Policy has joined other business groups in opposing a “one-size-fits-all” COVID-19 standard.  (See separate story.)

Growing concerns about work disincentives:  A Washington Post editorial this week called on Congress to fix the “unintended consequences of its [COVID] unemployment relief” and “strike the right balance” to encourage unemployed Americans to rejoin the labor force as soon as possible.  The editorial cited a new analysis from University of Chicago confirming that two-thirds of UI-eligible workers can receive benefits exceeding their previous pay and one-fifth can get double their wages.  In April, HR Policy submitted a letter to DOL Secretary Scalia requesting further clarification given these realities.  As an alternative to the House-passed extension of the COVID-19 UI benefits passed in March, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) is working on a proposal, which has caught the eye of some Democrats, that would let people who accept jobs keep $450 of the $600 weekly UI benefit for some time as a reemployment bonus.

Outlook:  The House passed its latest COVID relief bill, the HEROES Act.  Despite his view that the House-passed measure goes too far in numerous areas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that Congress will “probably” have to pass another coronavirus relief bill in the coming weeks.  However, a compromise is unlikely to be struck until just before the July 4th holiday at the earliest.