At the same time state Rep. Ashley Hinson is running to represent a congressional district heavily impacted by outbreaks of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants and long-term care facilities, in the Iowa Legislature, she supports shielding companies from potential lawsuits over endangering their workers’ safety during the pandemic.
Late Friday night, House Republicans at the state Capitol advanced an amended version of Senate File 2338 in an effort to “limit frivolous lawsuits,” according to the bill’s floor manager, Rep. Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine.
The legislation passed the Republican-controlled chamber 52-44 shortly before midnight. It now is eligible for debate in the Senate, where Republican leadership has said they will prioritize liability legislation while in session. No House Democrats voted in favor of the bill.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the controversial amendment was tacked on to tort reform legislation introduced earlier this year.
If enacted, the legislation prohibits Iowans from suing a company or health care facility unless they were hospitalized or died due to COVID-19, or if an individual can prove a company intended to cause them harm. The bill also protects companies from coronavirus-related civil damages unless they intentionally exposed an employee to the disease or “recklessly” disregarded government guidance on how to minimize exposure.
If signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, the law would apply retroactivity to coronavirus-related lawsuits filed Jan. 1 and beyond.
Hinson, the Republican nominee to challenge Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, did not speak on the House floor about the bill, but was one of 52 of Republicans to vote in favor of it. She also voted with her fellow Republicans to limit debate on the bill to 40 minutes.
Eastern Iowa has seen a number of COVID-19 outbreaks — some deadly — at meatpacking plants across the 1st District, including Tyson in Waterloo; National Beef Packing Co. in Tama; JBS in Marshalltown; and Agriprocessors in Postville.
During debate, House Democrats argued the bill provides immunity to large companies like Tyson and Smithfield that failed to implement proper social distancing and provide personal protective equipment to employees before more than 1,500 workers were sickened statewide.
“Essentially, this [bill] means that companies have been given the privilege of legal protection without the responsibility to maintain a safe workplace to prevent further spread of a deadly disease in our state,” said Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, on the House floor.
Long-term care facilities in the state also have been hard-hit, with elderly residents in the facilities accounting for half of Iowa’s coronavirus-related deaths.
Five long-term care facilities in Linn County alone have reported outbreaks, including Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids, which has experienced the largest outbreak of any long-term care facility in the state. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 24 residents there have died due to COVID-19. Heritage already had a long history of safety violations on infectious diseases.
Statewide, as of Monday morning, 609 Iowans have died from complications brought on by the respiratory disease.
Protecting businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits also is a priority of national Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called liability protections for business owners his “redline going forward” on another coronavirus relief bill.
“We can’t pass another bill unless we have liability protections,” McConnell said in an April interview on Fox News.
“Working together, of course, we need to make sure that there are liability protections in place for those businesses that are getting things back up and going in our economy,” Ernst said.
By Elizabeth Meyer
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