Nursing homes are asking state lawmakers to shield them from lawsuits related to the explosion of coronavirus cases in senior-care facilities. Meatpacking plants are making the same request. No one doubts the difficult job those facilities face, but they are for-profit businesses that must accept at least some responsibility for business decisions that could put the pursuit of profits ahead of worker safety. Governors should be crystal clear about the extent of immunity they advocate when urging the Legislature to embrace this idea.
A provision in Senate Bill 662 would protect nursing homes and long-term care providers from liability for civil damages in their good-faith efforts to combat this pandemic. On the face of it, such protections seem only logical as nursing home staffers work feverishly to keep residents alive in facilities that are highly vulnerable to infection.
The pandemic is linked to an estimated 20,000 deaths inside nursing homes nationwide. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order on April 1 declaring that health care facilities are "immune from civil liability for any injury or death occurring while the health care facility is engaged in the course of rendering assistance to the state in response to the COVID-19 outbreak."
At issue, however, are management decisions that have failed to provide staffers with basic protections like masks and gloves. Some facilities deny paid sick leave. These are strictly financial decisions designed to protect the bottom line of for-profit facilities. It is a conscious decision by managers even though they know fully well that policies rejecting paid sick leave only encourage staffers to keep coming to work despite whatever illness they might be feeling.
If staffers do the right thing and stay home out of an abundance of caution, they know they'll go without pay — something few if any of them can afford. The coronavirus-exposure risks are already high for them. If they bow to management pressure and work despite feeling ill, anyone they come in contact with — that is, other workers or elderly residents — faces an even higher risk of infection.
In such cases, management deserves to be held fully responsible in court. Similar sick-pay conditions have been in effect at major meatpacking plants, and the result has been a rampant spread of coronavirus infections. Even so, President Donald Trump has ordered those plants to remain open to protect the nation's food supply.
The Service Employees International Union has urged governors to insist on at least 15 days of paid sick leave for all health care workers along with employer-paid testing, hazard pay and the protective equipment workers need to perform their jobs while minimizing the risk. That's not too much to ask. If lawmakers don't insist, they can be certain that these facilities will minimize expensive precautions in order to maximize profitability.
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