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Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection

As negotiations around a fifth coronavirus relief package stalled last week, President Trump signaled that he would follow through with executive powers if Congress couldn’t agree to a bipartisan solution. Millions of unemployed or furloughed Americans are now left hanging in the balance, confused by the debate over the president’s executive order, and anxious about the possibility that relief may not come soon.

The impasse between both sides of the aisle and also the White House should concern all American workers and their employers. Not only does it pose an imminent threat to American livelihoods, but it also stifles finding a solution for another critically unresolved issue: liability protection for essential industries operating during the pandemic.

Up until last week, targeted, temporary and commonsense liability protection was a crucial part of the relief negotiations, largely because unresolved liability questions could have profound implications for the shape and speed of our economic recovery and the health and well-being of America’s workforce.

Both houses of Congress must agree to come together this week – ordinarily the start of August recess – to hammer out a bipartisan agreement that will extend unemployment benefits as well as tackle the liability question.

Solving complex challenges with multiple competing opinions often requires a return to the values that we hold in common. It requires open and honest dialogue about how we can leverage common ground to reconcile our differences. Successfully navigating this crisis requires that we first commit to understand the other’s perspective – then move together toward the most reasonable outcome.

For example, I have a family that I value and care about deeply. I am also a friend and colleague, responsible for leading a large manufacturing trade association in Washington, D.C. Like so many others, I’ve tried to navigate the COVID-19 crisis from the perspectives of both family and business.

The U.S. chemical industry, which I represent, together with hundreds of other manufacturing and business associations, have already served as important stakeholders and partners to this discussion.

Recognized as essential critical infrastructure, many chemical manufacturers have continued to operate nearly at full capacity since the start of the pandemic. They’ve been working to safeguard their employees and families from exposure to the virus while at the same time ramping up the supply of essential ingredients and materials that consumers, health care workers, and other essential industries need to protect Americans and stop the spread of the virus.

Thousands of businesses owners and their employees have been asked to work under the most extraordinary and challenging circumstances and continue to deliver critical products and keep their employees safe.

If Congress does not protect essential U.S. industries – from energy, to food and agriculture, to chemicals – from potentially baseless lawsuits, the companies representing these industries could face costly and time-consuming litigation, stalled operations, and potentially lose their ability to continue to meet the demand for essential materials and helping our economy climb out of this crisis.

At the same time, a sensible liability protection solution must also protect essential workers from companies that may not act in good faith to protect their employees. If a company acts recklessly and does not abide by federal or state safety regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic, in no way should it be allowed to claim safe harbor from employee or customer lawsuits.

Liability protections should be limited to the present emergency and a reasonable period of recovery. They should give employers some degree of assurance that, if they do the right thing and follow public health guidelines, they won’t face further financial hardships through baseless lawsuits.

Ultimately, what we value will determine the outcome of this crisis. When we place a high value on understanding and respecting one another’s unique needs, goals, and circumstances, and we recognize the critical role each of us can play in overcoming this crisis, I’m confident we will be well positioned for recovery and better days ahead.

That’s why Congress must act now to provide commonsense and bipartisan protection to help keep the doors open, preserve trust between businesses and employees, and help set us on a path toward recovery.

Chris Jahn is president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump liability

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