Del. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, submitted a bill Saturday that would provide entities with limited immunity from lawsuits based on exposure to or transmission of COVID-19, as well as to personal protective equipment manufacturers and distributors, according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System.
The bill is “trying to offer some relief and, really, some ability for us to move forward without us having to look over our shoulder this whole time,” Runion said Monday. “If you’re trying to do the right thing, you shouldn’t have to worry about being drug into court.”
A special session of the General Assembly begins today.
Individuals, estates and nonprofits would also be protected from civil lawsuits if the measure is enacted, according to the bill.
“It’s not just for business interest,” Runion said.
Businesses, nonprofits and individuals who are deemed grossly negligent or purposefully not following COVID-19 health recommendations are not protected by the bill.
Many businesses and other groups have struggled to keep up with the fast pace of changes to recommendations and requirements from federal and state authorities, according to Jay Langston, the executive director of regional economic group Shenandoah Valley Partnership.
“They are so inundated with different rules and regulations that most are trying to do the right thing, [but] it’s just confusing,” Langston said Monday.
Protections for manufacturers, distributors, labellers, and designers of PPE are intended to protect only Virginia entities, not foreign businesses, according to Runion.
Roughly a dozen other states have enacted or are working on similar measures to Runion’s, according to the National Law Review.
Various civil lawsuits have been filed against employers, including large meat-processing firms such as Tyson Foods and JBS, alleging the firms did not adequately follow guidelines to protect workers from COVID-19.
“If someone is ignoring [recommendations and requirements] that is a different case and they should be punished,” Langston said.
In Virginia, 1,216 workers at meat and poultry plants tested positive for COVID-19, 10 of whom died from the virus, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The cases peaked in April and May.
Poultry workers have expressed concerns about conditions in plants during the COVID-19 pandemic to the Daily News-Record on multiple occasions but declined to go on the record, citing concerns that voicing their opinions publicly might affect their employment.
Nationwide, nearly 16,250 workers in meat and poultry processing plants contracted COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 90% of those workers were of an ethnic minority.
A month ago, Virginia became the first state in the country to pass enforceable, temporary protections for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Langston said the Shenandoah Valley Partnership is working with businesses even now to help make clear what the new emergency standards require employers to do.
Groups such as Community Solidarity with the Poultry Workers, Virginia Organizing and the Legal Aid Justice Center petitioned the State Board of Health and the Safety Health Codes Board to increase protections for farm workers, as well as poultry and other meat-processing workers during the pandemic.
Jason Yarashes, the lead attorney and program coordinator for Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers of the Legal Aid Justice Center, could not be reached for comment about Runion’s bill Monday.
Runion said he hopes the bill will be supported by both Democrats and Republicans.
Back at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Runion’s office received “numerous” calls from individuals, businesses, nonprofits and even localities on how to obtain different necessary items at different times, he said.
“It’s tough for folks to keep up with,” Runion said.
The bill has an emergency clause, which allows it to go into effect immediately after being signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. The bill’s protections would expire two years after the end or revocation of the state’s declaration of emergency and emergency regulations.
“I’m really hoping that in less than two years, we’re back to normal and the need for this legislation goes away,” Runion said.
In other General Assembly news, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, introduced legislation to “increase transparency and accountability to the” Virginia Parole Board, according to a press release from his office.
“Over 90 violent felons were released within 30 days. Sadly, many of these inmates were released without the proper input from and notification to victims and their families, and Commonwealth’s Attorneys as required by law,” Obenshain said in the statement.
The bill requires, among other things, the board to publish an expanded monthly report on the last day of every month and removes language that can be used by the director of the Department of Corrections for early parole consideration of recommended prisoners, according to the release.