Michigan farmworkers and immigrant rights advocates are urging Governor Gretchen Whitmer to veto a package of bills aimed at protecting employers from COVID-19 workplace lawsuits.
Reportaje disponible en español aqui | MI Farmworkers Urge Governor Whitmer To Veto Bills
Immunizing Workplaces Against COVID Lawsuits
In late July, State Representative Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) introduced House Bill 6030, a bill tied to a suite of legislation that would protect employers from getting sued by employees who became sick with COVID-19 in the workplace, unless there's proof the business failed to follow safety regulations.
According to the bill, a business has to "intended to expose" an employee to the virus. "Intended to expose" means an employer knowingly dismissed standards set by the Michigan Operational Health and Safety Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services or other local health departments.
The bills are being backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce who say the legilation incentivizes businesses to follow public health guidance as well as Executive orders.
"It does so by telling them that, if they take reasonable steps to follow the rules, they will be protected against baseless lawsuits, including exposure and other personal injury claims," according to a press release from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
An "Impossible Bar"
Diana Marin with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, an organization urging Governor Gretchen Whitmer to veto the bills, says House Bill 6030 would change the general negligence standard to a gross negligence standard.
"It means someone has been so reckless in the way that they behaved," she explains. "It sets an impractical and virtually impossible bar to prove when an employer acted negligently in not protecting workers from COVID-19."
In other words, Marin says, the package of bills make it very hard for farmworkers who contracted COVID-19 at work to seek justice.
“Its not so much that you caught COVID, thats not enough to then be able to sue someone in court," she says. "You actually will have to have been hospitalized for 24 hours or have been incapacitated for at least 14 days or died from the coronavirus,” said Marin.
According to the bills, a worker only has legal standing if they have been hospitalized for at least 24 hours, have been incapicated for 14 days or have died from COVID-19. The bill would also shield those businesses developing off-brand PPE making them liable only if there was "substantial evidence" the company knew its productive was "defective" and caused someone else harm.
"Just The Flu"
Margarita (only her first name is used here to protect her identity) worked at an egg processing facility in Ottawa County that had a COVID-19 outbreak in April. She said she asked her employer to provide them with personal protection equipment, but they did not give her any.
"Then I started having symptoms and I brought it up to my supervisor but they said it was just the flu and that I was fine," said Margarita.
Margarita tested positive for COVID-19 a few days after she had the conversation with her employer. She unkowingly passed the virus to her husband.
"Both my husband and I got sick and we had to go to the hospital a couple of times but we were never admitted," she said. She became so ill she was unable to work for nearly a month.
"I didn’t feel strong enough because COVID left me so weak and so I had to stop working during that time," said Margarita.
Under the proposed legislation, Margarita's former employer would be provided immunity.
Immigrant Rights Groups Urge A Veto
Margarita is one of many farm workers joining the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, United Farm Workers Foundation, and Michigan League for Public Policy urging Governor Gretchen Whitmer to veto the bills.
The package of bills have passed out of the Michigan House of Representatives and are currently being considered by the Michigan Senate Committee on Economic and Small Business Development.