Legislation introduced last month in Washington and Harrisburg each aim to provide limited liability protection for businesses impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The main street businesses, like those on Philadelphia Street, are greatly impacted by not having this safe harbor protection in place,” Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce President Matt Smith said of federal “Safe to Work” legislation. “This is really important for small businesses, for large businesses, and for institutions like (Indiana University of Pennsylvania).”
Smith has joined with counterparts Gene Barr of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and Rob Wonderling of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia in urging the Pennsylvania congressional delegation to support “the timely, targeted, and temporary liability relief provisions contained in the federal ‘Safe to Work Act.’”
Smith said “the small and large businesses alike are really impacted by this,” and that “any business that is open and dealing with customers is interested in this issue.”
He added, “we’ve had a lot of support from a lot of our small chamber members,” such as Westmoreland County and Indiana County chambers, and that “a lot of the grass-roots comment has been very positive.”
Smith, who has in-laws in Indiana County, heads an organization that is under the umbrella of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. He said the Pittsburgh chamber has “a lot of members up there,” including Indiana’s two largest banks.
In turn, S&T Bank President Todd Brice and First Commonwealth Bank Regional President Dave Reed are on the Pittsburgh chamber’s board of directors.
The Safe to Work Act also is known as Senate Bill 4317. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced the bill, which was referred July 27 to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
“Our chambers, which represent over 10,000 businesses across Pennsylvania, have placed this issue at the top of our policy agendas,” the three chamber presidents wrote, “and respectfully ask that any Federal Phase IV negotiations include liability protection legislation.”
Phase IV is the latest round of talks aimed at furthering aid of the sort previously given in such venues as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act.
It has produced the Democrats’ $3.4 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, and the Republicans’ $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools, or HEALS Act.
In their letter the chamber presidents pay special attention to “healthcare providers and institutions who are going above and beyond the call of duty.”
They write: “Doctors and nurses are being called out of retirement. Businesses and other organizations are adjusting their operations to help meet the challenges to fight the COVID-19 virus, shifting their operations to help make personal protective equipment and other needed supplies. And other businesses and nonprofits, such as child care facilities, are working as hard as they can to support each other in our reopening process.”
Their goal is peace of mind for providers, industries and organizations, so “they can continue helping without fear of litigation and lawsuits.”
And lawsuits have begun, Smith said.
“There are going to be many, many more,” he predicted. “Law firms are going out and looking for plaintiffs.”
Cornyn has 19 co-sponsors, all Republicans, including Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley.
“Senator Toomey believes that schools, businesses and nonprofits need to be able to continue safely reopening without the threat of frivolous, expensive lawsuits from trial lawyers,” according to a statement issued by his Deputy Press Secretary Magdalena Jagla Ciccone. “That’s why he is a co-sponsor of the Safe To Work Act, which would provide reasonable, temporary and limited liability protection to such organizations if they follow public health guidelines.”
The officials adopted the phrase “timely, targeted, and temporary,” for the relief proposed. It would sunset, or expire, at the end of 2024 or the end of the pandemic emergency, whichever is later.
Toomey’s office said the act contains provisions that would hold accountable bad actors for coronavirus-related injuries, or “bad actors or those acting irresponsibly,” adding, “we do not seek to protect gross negligence, willful misconduct or intentional infliction of harm.”
Rather, Smith said, there should be protection for those “doing it the right way and following all of the appropriate guidance, the small mom-and-pop (businesses that are) doing everything they are supposed to do.”
While no Democrats have signed on to SB 4317 so far, Smith said, “we are optimistic … there will be, at the end of the day, bipartisan support.”
Smith said there is a companion bill in the U.S. House, with support from such lawmakers as U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, whose district includes Indiana County.
Meanwhile, the chamber presidents say they are “very supportive” of Pennsylvania state Senate Bill 1239, introduced by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee in Harrisburg.
Smith said Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, is one of the real leaders on that issue. Pittman is among 14 co-sponsors, a number that includes Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Johnstown, and 12 other Republicans, as well as one Democrat, John Blake, D-Scranton, minority chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
A memo circulated by Baker and Senate Republican colleagues Patrick Stefano of Fayette County, Michele Brooks of Mercer County and Kristin Phillips-Hill of York County expressed a need for “providing for limited COVID-19-related liability to manufacturers and others who provide Personal Protective Equipment, certain medical services, and who have opened up their businesses and followed (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines.”
They wrote, “due to the consequential novel aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, Pennsylvania has been forced into a serious trial-and-error process for containing the spread of the contagion, establishing protocols of treatment by medical practitioners, and setting safety standards of daily life for the public.”
They said “manufacturers have been forced to increase production, to retool, and others have donated materials or sold them at cost to help battle the pandemic.”
There are risks, they said, when decisive action is required before facts are established and research conducted.
“The state-ordered shutdown has inflicted substantial economic losses on institutions, enterprises, and families,” their memo stated. “No matter how someone perceives the scope of these restrictions or the proper exercise of authority, the overall economic impact is the same. We are now trying to figure out how to safely reopen in the face of concerns over a fresh rise in cases, even before we get to the projected second wave.”
Smith said there are several other bills being considered with similar purposes in the state House. SB 1239 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 27.