Since the rise of the COVID-19 virus, businesses have been faced with unprecedented risks and workforce management challenges. It’s only now, more than a year into the pandemic, that we see the full extent of its legal implications.
According to Seyfarth Shaw LLP, the COVID-19 virus spurred at least 1,005 workplace lawsuits in 2020. Due to unclear and inconsistent guidelines for managing risks, employers have had to adapt to evolving laws and social pressures with little room to make mistakes. In light of this, civil immunity protections have been put into place to help safeguard employers.
While the federal government has offered limited protections to health care workers and manufacturers, states have taken the real initiative to adopt protections. Let’s discuss some of the clearer immunities in place for civil liability and their limitations.
Top 2020 Pandemic Workplace Lawsuits
Before we discuss civil immunity laws, let’s take a look at some of the areas that caused the most issues for employers last year. These pain points will likely remain as focal points for civil suits as the legal landscape shifts in 2021.
According to the “17th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report”, the top reasons for class action litigation were:
- Safety/safety retaliation
- FFCRA leave/retaliation
- Wage and hour
- Failure to accommodate
- Remote work
- Protected leave
- FMLA leave/retaliation
- Various forms of discrimination
Make sure to take all of these into consideration as you determine the areas where potential problems could arise in your own operation.
Civil Immunity Laws & Which States Have Passed Them
As one would expect, civil immunity laws related to COVID-19 remain in a stage of development. Due to a lack of federal action, many states have provided broad civil immunity protections and created their own industry-specific safeguards.
To date, the following states have passed broad civil immunity statutes to protect against COVID-19-related lawsuits: Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming.
A good example of what these sorts of protections provide is in Ohio, where broad immunity is permitted for injuries or deaths related to coronavirus exposure so long as there’s no proof of the individual, business, or institution acting with “heedless indifference to the consequences.”
Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York have also enacted legislation providing liability protections to healthcare workers and facilities responding to the pandemic. Click here for a full state list of business liability protections.
Civil Immunity Laws Will Not Prevent Litigation
Such protections should have a positive impact on your business and reassure you that you won’t be without support in the days ahead. However, these implied defenses should not make you lower your guard. Immunity from liability doesn’t mean immunity from litigation itself.
All provisions, whether federal or state-intended, will still hold you accountable for more serious form of misconduct (ex. blatant negligence or recklessness towards worker safety). That means that even though civil immunity statutes seek to protect you, they won’t necessarily keep your organization from being sued. If you’re operating in a state with generalized protections, you could still have to pay the cost of defense.
Best Practices for Protecting Your Business
With your true level of protection unclear and new laws forming at a constant rate, it will remain difficult to uphold public health guidelines and operational compliance perfectly. For employers with multi-state operations, there will be even more to consider when trying to predict what a jury may deem as reckless or negligent.
Luckily, there are actions you can take to safeguard against liability. Even if your state has a civil immunity statute in place, these best practices will aid against COVID-19 lawsuits overall:
- Stay vigilant of temporary and long-term state/local orders.
- Maintain clear employee handbook policies.
- Update your standard operating procedures to reflect changing public health guidance.
- Monitor the outcomes of coronavirus-related litigation.
Workforce Management to Help with Compliance
Since applicable state, federal, local, and agency regulations may conflict with one another, there can be a tremendous amount of pressure to determine the most compliant courses of action on your own. With EPAY Systems as your Human Capital Management (HCM) provider, you’ll gain a valuable ally for increased security.
Our HR Compliance Portal can help answer simple compliance questions on a variety of hourly workforce issues—especially those concerning COVID-19. If you need more in-depth guidance, we also offer access to SHRM-certified HR specialists through our HR Consulting Services. Take a tour of our robust workforce management system, and request a personalized demo today!