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May 19, 2020 by Katie Tracy

Testimony: Here's How OSHA Can Improve Its Whistleblower Protection Program

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Whistleblower Protection Program (WPP) plays a vital role in protecting workers from employers who cut corners on safety or who violate other federal laws: It protects those workers who report such abuses from retaliation, making it harder for employers to get away with breaking the law. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. The 23 separate federal statutes the program encompasses cover a wide range of corporate wrongdoing, including violations of clean air and drinking water standards, food safety standards, workplace health and safety standards, and much more. If an employer retaliates against an employee for taking any of the actions covered by these laws, the employee may file a retaliation complaint with OSHA for investigation.

OSHA's WPP is critical for ensuring workers have safe and healthy workplaces where they can raise concerns without fear of retaliation. But unless the agency adequately enforces the whistleblower protection laws, employers may continue to abuse the law with minimal risk of penalty, and employees will never fully trust in the whistleblower protections those laws provide.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in workplaces across the nation, the policy goals of the WPP are …

May 14, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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Listening in on Tuesday's Senate Hearing on Corporate Liability During the Coronavirus Pandemic – you can find the video here and do a text search for "workers' compensation" – I was especially pleased to hear workers' compensation immunity discussed at 1:14:20 to about 1:14:50. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island specifically asked whether blanket corporate immunity would constitute subsidization of workers' compensation insurers. Witness Professor David Vladeck of Georgetown University Law Center responded that it very well could if workers' compensation were not carved out of the bill. I did not hear anyone contend during the hearing that workers' compensation could not be part of an immunity blanket, which is food for thought.

Coincidentally, I had been reading in The Atlantic as the Senate hearing was commencing an exceptionally good and sobering account of …

May 13, 2020 by Daniel Farber
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Originally published on Legal Planet. Reprinted with permission.

Sen. Mitch McConnell is demanding that any future coronavirus relief law provide a litigation shield for businesses, and other conservative and business interests have made similar proposals. So far, the supporters of these proposals have engaged in some dramatic handwaving but haven't begun to make a reasoned argument in support of a litigation shield.

In this post, I'm going to limit myself to negligence suits against businesses. Basically, these lawsuits claim the plaintiff got the virus due to the failure of a business to take reasonable safety precautions.

Even without a business shield, these are not going to be easy cases to win. Plaintiffs will have to show that they were exposed to the virus due to the defendant's business operation, that better precautions would have prevented the exposure, and that they weren't exposed elsewhere.

Tort lawyers may be …

May 12, 2020 by James Goodwin
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Yesterday, a group of 20 Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) Board Members, Member Scholars, and staff joined a letter to House and Senate leaders calling on them to reject efforts to attach to future COVID-19 pandemic-related legislation provisions that would interfere with the ability of workers, consumers, and members of their families to hold businesses accountable when their unreasonably dangerous actions have caused workers or consumers to contract the virus. Instead, as the letter urges, lawmakers should ensure that our courthouse doors remain open to all Americans to pursue any meritorious civil justice claims for injuries they suffer arising from companies' failure to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

The letter comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing this afternoon on the topic of “Examining Liability During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Insulating corporations against public accountability through the courts has long been …

May 8, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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In the latest episode of CPR Board President Rob Verchick's Connect the Dots podcast, he and CPR Member Scholars Michael Duff and Thomas McGarity explore worker safety issues in the era of the coronavirus.

McGarity begins the conversation with the story of Annie Grant, a 15-year veteran of the packing line at a Tyson Food poultry processing plant in Camilla, Georgia. One morning in late March, weeks after the nation had awakened to the danger of the coronavirus and states had begun locking down, she felt feverish. When her children urged her to stay home rather than work with a fever on the chilled poultry line, she told them that the company insisted that she continue to work. Furthermore, Tyson was offering a $500 bonus to employees if they worked for three months without missing a day. So, she went in to work, where she labored shoulder-to-shoulder …

May 7, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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With the majority of states beginning to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions, many Americans who've been sheltering in place for the past few weeks are now facing a difficult choice: Go back to workplaces that might not be safe, or risk being fired. They'll face similar choices at grocery stores, pharmacies, home centers, and everywhere else they go where they must rely on the precautions taken by owners, managers, and others for their safety.

Eager to fire up the economy with an election approaching, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has announced his intention to block a fourth stimulus bill if it does not include a provision extending broad immunity to businesses for any COVID-19 infections they cause workers or customers. If adopted, such immunity from litigation would leave us all at the not-so-tender mercies of the marketplace. Shielded from accountability and stung by lost business, too many …

May 6, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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In what for me is an ominous development, the Smithfield Foods public nuisance case, about which I blogged earlier, has been summarily denied by a Missouri federal district court and the case has been dismissed. The decision took all of twelve days.

In a nutshell, the court accepted the primary jurisdiction arguments that I have previously discussed but will not repeat here. Sometimes cases are illustrative of clear legal principles. This, for me, is not one of those cases. Sometimes cases set "mood points." And I fear that is the situation here. I have great concern about the prospect for an unreflective, anti-liability fervor enveloping the Great Reopening, though this decision did not directly reach questions of liability that could impact state workers' compensation or tort law. Narrowly read, the heart of the case is …

May 5, 2020 by Darya Minovi
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As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, public health data continues to show that the virus’s worst effects are felt by communities already weighed down by the burden of multiple social and environmental stressors. As of May 3, in CPR’s home city of Washington, DC, African Americans account for 79 percent of coronavirus deaths, despite making up only 45 percent of the city’s population and 47 percent of diagnosed cases. This inequitable trend appears to be playing out across the country.

Widely cited research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has also connected long-term air pollution exposure and coronavirus mortality, prompting researchers to explore this link in their own communities. Using Harvard’s data, Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic mapped particulate matter emissions against parish-level health and COVID-19 data in Louisiana. Their findings confirmed the suspicions of local …

May 5, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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Cross-posted by permission from Workers' Compensation Law Prof Blog.


As Senate Republicans and corporations continue to lobby for the broadest possible “liability shields” in connection with the Great Reopening, a novel lawsuit framed in terms of public nuisance theory is being litigated in a Missouri federal court. From the Nolo Plain-English Legal Dictionary, a public nuisance is defined as “[a]n activity or thing that affects the health, safety, or morals of a community. It is distinguished from a private nuisance, which harms only a neighbor or a few individuals. For example, a factory that spews out clouds of noxious fumes is a public nuisance, but playing drums at three in the morning is a private nuisance bothering only the immediate neighbors.”

So, under the theory of the case I'm about to discuss, when a meat-packing plant does not conform to, for example, CDC social-distancing guidelines, it …

May 4, 2020 by Rachel Micah-Jones, Matt Shudtz
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This is an excerpt from an op-ed originally published in the Baltimore Sun. You can read the full op-ed here.

President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry plants to continue operating despite COVID-19 outbreaks, exposing Maryland's poultry workers to enormous risks. Poultry processors haven't demonstrated they're able to keep workers safe and healthy, but they know that many of these low-wage workers will be forced to return. To top it all off, one of the president's goals with this order was to provide legal immunity to companies, so that they can't be sued by employees who are infected as a result of unsafe working conditions.

All the risks cascade down onto the workers. Many are from immigrant backgrounds and don't speak English. They're also exempted from vital protections, federal relief packages, and can't access COVID-19 treatment and care. We're standing in …

CPR HOMEPAGE
More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
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