Will companies be held liable if their employees get sick?
President Trump discusses whether companies or business owners will face legal action if their employees contract coronavirus after coming back to their jobs.
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During a coronavirus task force briefing Monday, President Trump said the administration would like to avoid making companies face liability if employees who are sent back to work contract the virus while on the job.
“We had tried to take liability away from these companies," Trump said. "We just don’t want that. We want the companies to open, and to open strong.”
Trump said while there has been no discussion on the topic yet, “not one” business executive has expressed any specific concerns, but they have asked about general liability related to the virus.
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According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause, employers are required to provide their employees "a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can cite employers for violating the general duty clause if there is a recognized hazard and they do not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate it. However, OSHA citations can only be based on standards, regulations, or the general duty clause.
In the event that an employee contracts the virus through exposure at work, New York law firm Seyfarth-Shaw says employees are entitled to receive "temporary total disability benefits in lieu of wages, reasonable and necessary medical treatment and an award for any resulting permanent disability."
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In a letter published by United States Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark last week, she outlined the criteria for what a safe workplace should look like when businesses reopening. She said a safe workplace requires the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, respirators and physical barriers and that employers can face lawsuits for a limited supply or lack of training of PPE.
"OSHA requires employers to be responsible for ensuring the availability of such equipment and training employees on the use of the equipment," Clark said.
She added, however, that it would be nearly impossible for every employer to make PPE available once the country reopens due to a lack of supplies, and that the federal government needs to clarify the "scope of liability for the provision (or inability to provide due to scarcity) of PPE."
"This is simply not possible if PPE becomes recommended in all workplaces," Clark said. "The federal government should make clear that PPE recommended specifically to combat the spread of COVID-19 is not subject to the normal OSHA requirements around workplace PPE."