Protesters rally against liability protections for employers relating to Covid-19 on Aug. 1, 2020 outside the Legislature on the second day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)
The decision to introduce a covid-liability protection bill that covers the majority of employers — and provides worker safety protections for employees in only one industry — came under heavy scrutiny during an overnight hearing at the ongoing legislative special session.
The Nevada Senate hearing on Senate Bill 4 did not begin until past 10 p.m. Monday and ended around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. However, the late-night setting did not deter ample public testimony, including one call from a woman currently fighting covid-19 while on unpaid sick leave from her childcare job.
While introducing the bill to the Senate Committee of the Whole, Michelle White, the governor’s chief of staff, framed the bill as a way to help a state economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
White stressed that the proposed liability protections do not provide total immunity and that “bad actors” will continue to face consequences.
Instead, companies properly following established public health and safety guidelines would be protected from harm from anyone “seeking to capitalize on the current situation.”
Trial lawyers and legal groups have scoffed at that framing, saying the proposed bill raises the legal standard that must be met and will hurt employees who are put in harm’s way by negligent bosses or businesses.
SB4 also establishes specific resources and standards on worker safety — but only for the hospitality industry.
The liability protections would be retroactive to the declaration of emergency in March and sunset sometime in 2023. It would protect a variety of businesses, nonprofits and governmental organizations, including K-12 schools and NSHE.
It specifically excludes private hospitals and other health care businesses such as hospices and nursing homes. Nursing homes across the country, including two in Southern Nevada, have been hotspots for covid-19.
Public hospitals and clinics, such as University Medical Center, would be considered public entities and would get liability protection.
Brin Gibson, general counsel for the governor’s office, was asked multiple times by lawmakers why health care businesses were excluded. Twice he answered that essential medical workers were previously included in an emergency order that provided some protections for them, but the explanation was vague and didn’t land well with senators.
After the third time being asked, Gibson responded that SB4 was the product of negotiations with “the most important members of the economy.”
He continued. “They decided these elements should be included in this way. There’s potential this deal falls apart if we start amending certain provisions in there, and for reasons that might not be obvious — some are messaging related, some are optics related, some are substantive.”
State Sen. Ira Hansen said it was clear that health care companies were being used as a sacrificial lamb: “the red meat thrown to the trial lawyers.”
Gibson later called his answer “an oversimplification” and added that hospitals and health care providers are “held to a higher standard” and “able to manage illnesses in a way other businesses are not.”
He added, “Our goal was not to overburden the bill.”
Additionally, senators questioned staff about whether things like energy cooperatives, professional or trade associations, and even homeowners associations were provided liability through the bill.
SB4 received support from the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, MGM Resorts, the Nevada Resort Association and the Culinary Union, which pushed for the worker protections included within the bill.
The bill was opposed during the hearing and in public statements by K-12 educational unions, legal associations, medical businesses and faculty in higher ed.
One caller, who did not associate herself with any particular group, testified that she was calling from her home where she is quarantined on unpaid sick leave while positive with covid-19, which she believes she contracted at her work.
Many criticized what they see as a prioritization of businesses over their workers. They called for broader worker protections.
Several accused the state of passing the bill to protect itself, with one caller noting that Gov. Steve Sisolak recently changed the social distancing rules required in grades kindergarten through eighth grade from 6 feet to 3 feet.
The Nevada State Education Association criticized Nevada Democrats for holding a trifecta in both houses and the governorship yet embracing “Mitch McConnell-style legislation.” The Nevada Faculty Alliance noted a provision of the bill dictating how often hotel guest rooms are cleaned, before adding grimly, “It seems protecting hotel guests is more important than protecting students in dorms.”
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