As coronavirus-related infections and deaths multiply across the United States, workers and their families are filing lawsuits accusing companies of neglecting workplace safety. While some companies may be able to limit liability from some of these lawsuits by demonstrating that they have complied with state and federal safety guidelines related to the Covid-19 epidemic, that won’t work for everyone. Companies that pressured employees to work under questionable conditions or were slow to adopt new safety measures may now have to prepare to fight their workers in court. Even companies that allowed employees to work from home and now want them to return to the workplace may face lawsuits claiming employer’s efforts to provide a safe indoor working environment aren’t good enough.
According to news reports, more than 460 employment, labor and consumer lawsuits involving coronavirus safety claims had been filed by the end of July. The family of an employee who died after contracting coronavirus sued Walmart in Illinois court in April for allegedly not following CDC guidelines; Amazon warehouse workers sued the online retail giant in June, claiming it failed to adequately track and prevent the spread of the coronavirus among employees; Unions representing 65,000 Las Vegas area casino workers filed lawsuits in June claiming lax coronavirus safety measures at casinos; and experts expect many more lawsuits before the end of the year.
It’s hard to imagine a company that won’t have a worker that contracts the coronavirus before this pandemic is contained. Therefore all corporate boards should begin mapping out strategies to deal with a broad range of coronavirus related lawsuits.
• Consult with health and safety experts to better understand how the coronavirus might be spread within your workplace. Understanding how the Covid-19 virus is spread indoors and how to properly clean and disinfect surfaces will be important to formulating any effective plan to keep workers safe. Boards should document correspondence and meetings with health experts and other consultants as they gather information that can help put together effective safety protocols that can keep workers safe. These interactions can help to defend the company against some lawsuits.
• Consult with employees to prevent Covid-19 lawsuits. Involve frontline workers in the development of the health and safety protocols to keep workers safe. Survey workers to find out areas that they feel are unsafe, and ask them for suggestions on what can be done to ease their fears. Document these interactions with workers and incorporate some of your findings into your safety plan. It is much harder to argue that the company has been negligent when the workers have participated in developing the safety protocols.
• Create a detailed safety plan to strengthen your legal defense. Companies that have detailed written policies and procedures regarding worker safety during the Covid-19 pandemic will fare much better than those that don’t. Worker safety policies should comply with any state and federal guidance. They should also address issues that may be unique to your company, such as providing assembly line workers with face coverings and other protective gear, or making sure employees and customers are separated by clear plastic barriers. Showing that the safety procedures were communicated to and understood by all employees is also important. And explaining what steps should be taken if an outbreak occurs will also show the company has acted in “good faith” with the employee’s best interest in mind.
As corporate boards discuss and finalize their Covid-19 safety plans, if they find themselves debating whether to overpay for safety systems and procedures designed to protect workers from the coronavirus, it is likely in their best interest to overpay. If it is proven that the board refused to pay for safety, it could validate legal claims of negligence during litigation.
Additionally, the negative consequences of battling against your own employees in court can be significant. The cost in lost productivity, legal expenses and potential financial judgements against the company if you lose will likely dwarf any money spent on safety. Company morale will be destroyed and the loss of trust between management and workers will likely cause significant numbers of employees to leave. And finally, the company could be branded as a firm that doesn’t care about its workers, hindering its recruitment efforts in the future.