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“The pandemic has created unprecedented operating conditions, and the food industry has evolved to implement new and often changing guidance in numerous areas, including social distancing, face coverings and enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols,” FMI CEO Leslie Sarasin stated.

FMI, NGA support liability limits in COVID-19 aid legislation

Grocery industry’s ‘extraordinary efforts’ during pandemic shouldn’t come with legal risks, trade groups say

FMI-The Food Industry Association and the National Grocers Association (NGA) back business liability protection as a key component of the coronavirus relief and aid legislative package now pending in the U.S. Senate.

Introduced this week by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Safeguarding America’s Frontline Employees To Offer Work Opportunities Required to Kickstart the Economy (Safe To Work) Act would temporarily limit liability for COVID-19 exposure claims for frontline workers like nurses, doctors, teachers and small-business owners as long as they follow public health guidelines for coronavirus safety and aren’t grossly negligent.

FMI called on lawmakers to support the measure in a print ad in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Headlined “Supermarkets Continue To Be There For America — Now Congress Needs To Be There For Them,” the ad shows a photo of COVID-19 safety measures in action at the entrance of a supermarket. “We need Congress to provide liability protection that recognizes these extraordinary efforts,” the ad states. “Our businesses, our schools — indeed our economy — will not survive without it. Liability relief legislation is essential.”

FMI liability limit ad in WSJ-July2020.jpgRunning in the July 28 Wall Street Journal, FMI's print ad calls on Congress to recognize the supermarket industry's essential role during the coronavirus crisis. (Image courtesy of FMI)

Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI, noted that the food industry took on added responsibility from the start of the pandemic to protect customers and employees from COVID-19 and to maintain public access to the food and other essential supplies. In stores, those efforts included keeping grocery shelves stocked with necessary items, meeting new customer demands, sanitizing stores, transporting food through the supply chain and manufacturing products, she explained.

“The pandemic has created unprecedented operating conditions and the food industry has evolved to implement new and often changing guidance in numerous areas, including social distancing, face coverings and enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols,” Sarasin said in a statement. “Our industry’s status as critical infrastructure poses special responsibility that the industry has embraced. It should not also carry with it the extraordinary economic risks that would result from the actions by those looking to exploit this crisis. We need liability protection that acknowledges the extraordinary efforts during this national emergency of food industry workers and the companies that employ them.”

She added, “Liability relief is essential. The food industry calls on Congress to pass essential liability protections in the next COVID-19 response bill.”

The Safe To Work Act would limit liability for personal injuries arising from alleged COVID-19 exposure at a school, college, nonprofit, church or business. To qualify for protection under the act, entities must have made “reasonable efforts” to comply with applicable public health guidelines and not have engaged in “willful misconduct or grossly negligent behavior.”

The legislation’s safeguards would apply to personal injury lawsuits arising from actual exposure to coronavirus and from “feared or potential” exposure, as well as cover nuisance claims. Coronavirus-related exposure injuries between Dec. 1, 2019, and Oct. 1, 2024 — the end date of the COVID-19 PREP Act Declaration — would be covered.

“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, independent grocers and their associates have worked tirelessly to serve Americans across the country. We have gone to great lengths to protect our employees and the public from virus exposure,” NGA President and CEO Greg Ferrara commented. “We are encouraged the Senate bill would avert a tide of frivolous and unfounded lawsuits filed against grocers simply for staying open to serve the public.”

Both NGA and FMI also support the Healthy Workplace Tax Credit, sponsored by Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, which would provide refundable tax credits to businesses for the expenses on COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), disinfecting, extra cleaning and reconfiguration of workspaces. 

NGA yesterday also voiced support for the Senate Finance Committee bill’s cap on unemployment compensation during the pandemic. The measure would limit total benefits at 70% of lost wages, “thereby eliminating situations where workers are paid more to stay home than return to work,” NGA said.

“The supermarket industry has changed drastically over the last several months, requiring grocers to extend more resources and staffing towards handling increased demand and maintaining a safe atmosphere for employees and customers,” according to Ferrara. “The unemployment and tax credit provisions are an important first step in ensuring independent grocers can continue to operate safely and retain and recruit a qualified workforce.”

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