GOP tries to gut protections for workers in new virus relief bill

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'This proposal is laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support.'

Senate Republicans on Tuesday released their latest version of a pandemic relief bill. The so-called skinny proposal, known as the "Delivering Immediate Relief to America's Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act," omits most of the funds included in the bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. But it contains provisions that would make it harder for workers to sue if they got sick and that would funnel public funds to private and parochial schools.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced the bill as "a new targeted proposal, focused on some of the very most urgent healthcare, education, and economic issues." He noted that it "does not contain every idea our party likes."

But it does contain two provisions that GOP senators like a lot.

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The bill funds what it terms "Emergency Education Freedom Grants" for the next two years. This provision, pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), would provide a tax credit to reimburse individuals for donations to state-level scholarship funds that pay for educational expenses. These expenses could include private school or parochial school tuition — essentially a backdoor route to private school vouchers.

A Cruz spokesperson told the American Independent Foundation last week that the grants "would give families the resources they need to ensure their children have access to a quality education in these uncertain times."

But Americans United for the Separation of Church and State warned: "This legislation would redirect $5 billion of taxpayer dollars each year away from the public treasury where it could be used to fund public schools, and instead fund private, religious schools. Not only does this voucher scheme undermine the public schools that serve 90 percent of students nationwide, but it threatens religious freedom by using taxpayer dollars to fund religious education."

Another key part of the bill aims to provide "safe harbor" from liability for "individuals and entities engaged in businesses, services, activities, or accommodations" if their employees contract the coronavirus. It incorporates a proposal offered by McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) to require workers who contract the virus to prove that they did so due to their employer's "reckless disregard" for safety measures in order to bring a lawsuit.

As things currently stand in most states, if a business's customer or employee gets sick, they can sue if they can prove the business was responsible and did not take reasonable precautions. Employment lawyer Jonathan Segal told USA Today in April that proving such cases in court is already an "uphill battle."

If enacted, the bill would make the hill even steeper — likely insurmountable. "This actually raises the bar so high that no worker or consumer will ever be able to" meet its standard, National Employment Law Project staff attorney Hugh Baran told the American Independent Foundation in July.

A McConnell spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But since April, McConnell has said that he will not allow the Senate to pass any relief bill at all unless it contains the liability provisions, calling it his "red line."

The Senate Republican majority will reportedly try to bring the bill up for a vote on Thursday. It is unlikely to receive the needed super-majority vote to pass the Senate — let alone the majority support needed in the Democratic-controlled House.

In a joint statement last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that the "emaciated bill" does not "come close to addressing the problems and is headed nowhere."

"If anyone doubts McConnell’s true intent is anything but political, just look at the bill," they wrote. "This proposal is laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support."

McConnell has blocked the $3 trillion bill passed by the House bill for more than three months, calling it "dead on arrival" in the Senate. It would have provided funds for measures both to curb the pandemic and to address the economic crisis that the coronavirus has caused.

Tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed, and more than 6.2 million Americans have contracted the coronavirus to date.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.