Following up an earlier bill, two Pennsylvania congressmen have introduced new legislation to provide tax relief to grocery and other food workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Also on Tuesday, food industry representatives testified in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on employer liability for worker illness as businesses across the country start to reopen after COVID-19 shutdowns.
U.S. Reps. Glenn Thompson (R) and Dwight Evans (D) of Pennsylvania yesterday announced the Assistance and Gratitude for Coronavirus Heroes in Agribusiness who are Invaluable to the Nation (AG CHAIN) Act. The bill (H.R. 6841) would provide a federal tax holiday and a payroll tax exemption for all essential employees in the food and agriculture industry, as defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The measure would be effective for eligible individuals making less than $75,000 annually for the period of Feb. 15 to June 15. The Treasury Department also would have the option to extend the benefit for an additional three months.
“Food security is national security, and employees in the supply chain are working overtime to ensure crops are harvested, shelves and coolers are stocked, and Americans have food on the table,” Thompson said in a statement on Tuesday. “These men and women provide a critical service day in and day out, and we are particularly grateful for their commitment to feeding and fueling the nation as we continue to address the challenges associated with COVID-19.”
H.R. 6841 marks an extension to the Giving Retailers and Our Convenience Employees Relief (GROCER) Act, which Thompson and Evans introduced on April 21. That bill (H.R. 6567) called for a federal tax relief period for grocery and convenience store employees amid the COVID-19 crisis.
“We need to help the workers who are keeping America fed during this crisis,” Evans said. “This bipartisan bill [H.R. 6841] would complement our proposed GROCER Act by helping even more of the people who are doing just that, and I believe it’s something that most of us should be able to agree on.”
Thompson and Evans’ legislation drew plaudits across food retail and production industry sectors, including from FMI-The Food Industry Association (FMI), the National Grocers Association (NGA), the National Association of Convenience Stores, the National Restaurant Association, the International Dairy Foods Association, the American Bakers Association and the National Association of Truck Stop Operators.
“Supermarket workers and our supply chain partners remain on the job and are truly essential to America’s coronavirus response,” commented Jennifer Hatcher, chief Public policy officer at FMI. “The AG CHAIN Act of 2020 recognizes the efforts of the food industry and gives our frontline associates well-deserved tax relief for their commitment to ensuring that grocery stores are open and stocked during this national emergency. FMI greatly appreciates Rep. Thompson and Rep. Evans’ leadership on this important legislation.”
NGA said yesterday its members have sent more than 2,000 letters to their local members of Congress calling for legislation that grants tax relief to frontline grocery workers for their contributions during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, independent grocers and wholesalers have made nothing less than heroic efforts to keep the food supply chain humming, using every tool in their toolbox to restock and replenish shelves and serve their communities,” NGA President and CEO Greg Ferrara said in a statement. “We appreciate Congressmen Thompson and Evans for their leadership on this important legislation to recognize the great efforts employees in the food supply chain have taken to provide Americans with life necessities during these challenging times.”
H.R. 6841 recognizes “the extraordinary service of America’s frontline food and agriculture workers,” according to Chris Jones, senior vice president of government relations and counsel at NGA.
“The AG Chain Act honors these supermarket superheroes and will help boost the income of workers that show up for work every day,” said Jones. “We will continue to leverage the power of independent grocers grassroots and work with our champions in Congress to pass this needed piece of legislation.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, FMI urged Congress to adopt “sensible” liability legislation as businesses nationwide begin to reopen after shutting down or restricting operations for weeks to help slow the spread of the virus. Liability remains a looming issue as companies that enact recommended COVID-19 safety measures seek to limit legal responsibility for employees who contract the virus, whereas workers aim to ensure that employers are accountable for negligence in protecting the workplace.
“FMI wholesalers and retailers have worked tirelessly from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to serve our communities and protect our associates. The industry has partnered with our suppliers to continue providing a safe, healthy and affordable food supply that has helped create stability in this challenging time. Businesses that have acted in good faith to protect their associates and customers, and implement best practices that reflect the current state of science, should not have to face lawsuits that second guess these efforts after the fact,” FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin stated. “For these reasons, FMI asks that Congress enact sensible liability protections that safeguard our industry’s extraordinary efforts to keep Americans fed and with access to items sold through our pharmacies that contribute to their continued good health.”
FMI’s comments came after a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon examined the matter of employer liability during the COVID-19 pandemic. Food industry officials providing testimony in the hearing included Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union, and Kevin Smartt, CEO of convenience-store chain Kwik Chek Food Stores.
In the hearing, Perrone said UFCW’s internal estimates have confirmed 35 meatpacking worker deaths and 60 grocery store worker deaths from COVID-19. In addition, the union said at least 3,272 meatpacking members and at least 4,157 grocery members have been directly impacted by the virus.
“Our members are incredibly hard-working men and women. They are also on the frontlines of this pandemic,” Perrone told lawmakers. “UFCW supports measures to make workers safer and rejects calls for employer immunity, which would only exacerbate the current crisis. The best way to keep our essential businesses up and running, and to reopen additional businesses, is to ensure that workers have the protections they need.”
Speaking on behalf of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), Kwik Chek’s Smartt testified that Congress should consider limiting liability protections specifically to coronavirus, as well as the time during which the disease presents a threat.
“Our businesses are providing essential goods and services to our fellow Americans during this national emergency. Yet we are not undertaking this lightly: We refuse to sacrifice the health and safety of our employees and customers just to stay open. To stay open, therefore, we have made significant responsible investments in our businesses to ensure that our employees can come to work and do their jobs without knowingly being exposed to COVID-19. This has not been simple or inexpensive. In addition to contending with the virus itself, we have had to contend with changing health guidelines, supply chain shortages, and obstacles to acquire personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, among other things,” Smartt explained.
“Nevertheless, we persist because we are trying to do right by our employees and our customers. Sadly, however, the uncertainty and compliance challenges feed efforts by some to take advantage of this crisis by bringing lawsuits against businesses, like ours, that kept running,” he said. “Policymakers should not let businesses that operate in good faith to keep their doors open be harassed by unsubstantiated claims.”
David Vladeck, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, testified in the Senate hearing that Congress needs to strike a balance between limiting liability for employers and mandating reasonable COVID-19 protections for employees.
“Providing employers and businesses the guidance they need to safely reopen will do more to forestall litigation and to open up our economy than anything else the federal government can do, short of finding a vaccine,” Vladeck said. “Adhering to specific and expert guidance on how to avoid propagation of the virus gives businesses a strong regulatory compliance defense, and it signals to workers and consumers that their employers and businesses are taking reasonable precautions to safeguard their health.”
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