America in Recovery: The Role of Essential Employees and Business Liability in Economics and Finance, Education and Workforce

By Praveena Javvadi

Small businesses are essential to America’s economy, and have faced enormous challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, while continuing to serve and provide for their communities. Recently, the Bipartisan Policy Center held a virtual event to discuss the issues businesses must address in light of the COVID-19 crisis and how legislative policies can better support them. The first part of the event featured Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), who discussed their bipartisan bill, The Get America Back to Work Act (HR 7528). Later, Julie Jackowski from Casey’s General Store and Laura Robertson from Conoco Phillips discussed how their businesses have worked to adapt to the pandemic. Here are the key takeaways:

The Get America Back to Work Act of 2020

Faced with an unprecedented challenge, Congress passed bipartisan legislation in order to help Americans and businesses in dire need at the beginning of the pandemic. Attempting to find the right balance between the economy and health of the individual, though, has led to partisan divide in Congress. However, Reps. Graves and Cuellar have come together on a bipartisan proposal that puts the needs of their districts over partisan divide. Their bill, the Get America Back to Work Act, which provides liability protections to business owners who have followed CDC and local health department guidelines during the pandemic. The bill ensures that good faith actors who have protected the safety of their customers and employees to the best of their ability are not liable in court, which could lead to exorbitant legal fees that could bankrupt many small businesses. 

The Future of the Bill

Reps. Graves and Cuellar are now working to build support for the bill with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Although tort reform in Congress has a partisan history, Rep. Cuellar emphasized that this bill finds a good balance that works to support customers and businesses. Moreover, he stated that Democrats are not completely opposed to tort reform, as he was able to pass reforms in the Affordable Care Act. On the Republican side, Rep. Graves stated that the bill’s liability protections are an important issue to many Republicans in Congress. As legislators begin charting the next step of economic recovery and provide assistance to businesses, Rep. Graves emphasized that this reform needs to stay a part of the conversation in order to be proactively helping Americans and the economy. 

The Business Perspective

The good faith actions businesses have made as described in The Get America to Work Act are exemplified by the work of Casey’s General Store and Conoco Phillips. Both Julie Jackowski and Laura Robertson described how their businesses have had to pay attention to shifting guidance from the CDC, state regulations, and local rulings in order to properly provide resources for their employees and customers. In fact, both panelists described the many changes they have had to make along the way in order to properly address the needs of the pandemic.

For one, both businesses have had to fundamentally shift their communications strategies in order to efficiently and quickly communicate with their workforce as new guidance came from the federal government and states made differing decisions during the shutdown. At Casey’s General Store, Jackowski described how they have placed traffic and distance stickers in stores, shifted away from self-serve kiosks, changed employee scheduling techniques, updated business transaction platforms, and much more in order to prepare their stores properly. All of these changes required the company to use their own resources, but they did it to ensure their customers and employees’ safety. Similarly, Robertson described how Conoco Phillips followed guidance in the field for their energy work and took extra precautions for employees working in colder areas, while continuing to meet guidance requirements and serving their communities. 

Liability Concerns

Despite the many changes their businesses have made, Jackowski and Robertson explain how both their business may still face liability concerns if Congress fails to pass the protections enshrined in Reps. Graves and Cuellar’s bill. Without the bill’s protection, litigation can lead to frivolous, lengthy, and expensive processes that put businesses at risk despite making good faith efforts to protect Americans. All four panelists n emphasized that bad actors should not be protected 

As America continues to find a balance between the economy and public health, small business liability protections can help many workers and consumers safely return to their jobs and lives during and after the pandemic.