Recently, Iowa Senate and House Republicans passed legislation that may protect health care providers and businesses from lawsuits pertaining to COVID-19, impacting workman's comp. The introduction of the legislation hasn't been without controversy. Democrats, advocates for the elderly, and workers have spoken out against it.
What the New Legislation Means
The new liability shield in place will limit civil lawsuits filed against health care providers and other businesses for potential or actual exposure to the novel coronavirus. Amid resistance to this legislation, lawyers have clarified that it isn't intended to protect businesses from reckless, willful, or grossly negligent misconduct. The laws don't keep employees from filing workman's compensation claims against employers for exposure to COVID-19. The liability shield affects each state differently, but across all states it:
Protects businesses and employees from any COVID-related civil suits, whether pertaining to actual or potential exposure.
Does not protect businesses from willful, intentional, reckless, or grossly negligent misconduct.
Does not prevent employees from filing workman's comp claims regarding possible exposure to the coronavirus.
Beyond those features, the laws and how they work will depend on the state. They may vary in the types of businesses they protect, the specific actions or omissions they protect, and the amount of time the law applies before people can file civil suits. The minority Democrats in the Iowa House and Senate have fought the bill due to claims that it sets the bar too high for what makes a business liable for exposure to the virus, primarily for nursing homes and meatpacking plants where the risk of exposure is greater.
Making It Harder to File Lawsuits Regarding COVID-19
The new legislation applies to a variety of businesses including hospitals, nursing homes, and meatpacking plants by limiting suits from employees, customers, and families regarding hospitalizations or deaths resulting from COVID-19. Individuals are still able to file a lawsuit if they are able to prove that the employer intentionally exposed employees or customers to the coronavirus. While the Republican majority in Iowa supported the legislation, certain advocacy groups representing the elderly and workers in the meatpacking industry argued that it prevents these groups from getting the protection they deserve from abusive businesses. Advocates are particularly critical of the legislation because the meatpacking and nursing home industries have been hit hard by the pandemic in Iowa. Hundreds have died in long-term care centers because of the virus, according to the Iowa Department of Health, and thousands of workers at Iowa meatpacking plants have had confirmed infections, which is the highest number in the U.S. Critics of the bill assert that the liability shield will enable large businesses to avoid taking the proper precautions to ensure that workers and residents are consistently safe. Meanwhile, lawmakers who support the legislation have stated that the bill aims to make sure that employees are able to keep working. Supporters have also noted the difficulty of proving that an employee was infected in the workplace, especially if he or she spends most of his or her time away from work on a daily basis.
How the Bill Impacts Workman's Comp for Meatpacking Employees
In short, the bill won't prevent employees from filing workers' compensation claims against employers for negligence. The issue that many critics of the legislation have is that it still provides protection for meatpacking companies from other types of lawsuits. For example, meatpacking businesses often outsource cleaning to other companies. While cleaning staff may be able to file a lawsuit against the company for injuries resulting from factory accidents on the premises, the new bill would require the employee to prove that the business intentionally exposed them to the coronavirus or was aware of unsafe working conditions. The legislature puts the burden of proof on the employee, whereas laws in other states, such as Illinois, place that burden of proof on businesses. Employees at meatpacking facilities and other businesses may still be able to sue for injuries, but the bill may give workers the impression that they don't have the ability to recover compensation, leading them to avoid filing suits. In essence, the law deters employees from taking the action they may still be able to take. Additionally, the bill works to prevent lawsuits seeking injunctions as opposed to monetary compensation. The former can influence businesses to change their behavior to prevent future instances of negligence. The bill may not directly impact workman's compensation in Iowa, but it could keep employees from seeking compensation as a deterrent. At the same time, it may prevent businesses from making changes needed to create a safer workplace for workers, nursing home residents, and others.