Column: Coronavirus business liability law enshrines injustice

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While the tragedy of the current pandemic impacts Michiganders across the state, some more than others have carried the burden of the pandemic’s toll. Now the Michigan Legislature has passed and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed HB 6030, a bill that further shifts the economic and social costs to those who are carrying the heaviest burden.   

More than 200,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19 related illnesses. In Michigan, more than 7,000 members of our community are dead. The 7,000 dead are not faceless, and their skin has a color. 

Of the 7,000 lives lost, 36% were Black. Yet Black residents compose less than 15% of our state’s population.  The disparity in Michigan’s numbers are a microcosm of what exists nationally, where Black and Latino residents are nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 and significantly more likely to die from the virus

These racial and ethnic disparities are exacerbated by workplace conditions. Black and Latino workers often have less opportunity to work remotely and work in industries with a higher risk of illness. Outbreaks among bus drivers and at meat processing facilities, manufacturing facilities, construction sites, food service establishments, and agricultural worksites have all been documented in Michigan and such industries typically employ greater percentages of people of color. 

Gov. signs bipartisan business liability bills amid COVID-19 crisis 

As current political and social movements demand, Black Lives Matter. For far too long, Black lives and the lives of other people of color have been devalued within our legal institutions and in the workplace. House Bill 6030 perpetuates and expands these failings by closing the courts to people harmed by a business’s careless or reckless conduct.

House Bill 6030 cynically manipulates the standard for showing negligence — an integral tool within the state’s social safety net to protect public health – to provide near total immunity to businesses who act carelessly, and even recklessly, in the face of a known risk of spreading COVID-19. The bill grants immunity to all businesses that comply with federal and state statutes, regulations, executive orders and local laws. 

The bill fails to note, and the public is not informed, that there are no federal workplace safety statutes or regulations, no state laws, no executive orders and few local laws protecting people from exposure to COVID-19 and the national government and our Legislature have no plans to enact such measures. 

The only workplace safety requirements of any kind that have been in effect until the past two weeks were two executive orders from the governor. The governor’s executive orders provided much needed leadership on protections for workers and consumers; however, they were found invalid by the Michigan Supreme Court. To fill the gap, an emergency standard was recently issued by Michigan’s occupational safety and health administration. It is unclear whether this will also be challenged by opponents.

CDC: Black and Latino children at higher risk of hospitalization from COVID-19

Regardless, agency rules are minimum standards. Engineers and health and safety professionals know that one-size-fits all standards cannot provide reasonable safety across the board and the minimum standards exist to provide a floor, not a ceiling for safety.

That is why every decent employer does more. These employers do what is reasonable under the circumstances at their business and that is what tort law requires. Careless employers are aware as well that the state rarely brings enforcement actions and is without resources to do so anytime soon. Without enforcement, there is no accountability and without accountability, the race to the bottom begins.

At a time when legislators on both sides of the aisle now recognize that the immunities granted to law enforcement serve only to protect the worst actors in their ranks and to ensure that there will be little accountability to people harmed, House Bill 6030 does much the same for the worst corporate actors in our economy.  

House Bill 6030 ensures that the families of the pandemic’s victims, and they alone, will suffer the economic and social costs caused by the absence of a parent, a spouse, a daughter, or other valued community member. During this pandemic, those costs will again be most heavily paid by our Black neighbors and people of color and we all will be left to wonder if this is not exactly what this Legislature intends.