GRAND FORKS — Important legislation was signed by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, with little fanfare but with crucial protections for the state’s businesses.
On April 23, Burgum gave final approval to House Bill 1175, which will protect employers from lawsuits by workers who claim they contracted COVID-19 while on company time. The governor calls it “common-sense liability protection” for employers who have endured a financially traumatic last 13 months.
Now that it’s signed, the protections will apply retroactively to January 2020. An exception in HB 1175 exists for employees who believe their employer was intentionally trying to harm a worker.
The legislation was introduced by state Rep. Michael Howe, R-West Fargo. Proponents say it will give peace of mind to the state’s employers who otherwise may be saddled with concerns about frivolous lawsuits. Opponents feel it will allow companies to run roughshod over employee rights and protections during this pandemic and potential future crises, and all while escaping consequences.
This is good legislation, for myriad reasons. Foremost is proving causation: How can it be determined with 100% certainty that a claimant contracted coronavirus at work?
Even if an employer has safeguarded the workplace, some employees still may not entirely adhere to the company’s mitigation practices. Do all employees wash their hands for the CDC-recommended 20 seconds after using the bathroom? And how can we possibly know they do?
Is it possible an employee contracted the virus at home, or while attending an event or buying supplies?
Further, as Howe and others have noted, businesses should not be subjected to frivolous legal claims from law firms that seek to ensnare employers.
HB 1175 cruised through both legislative chambers on its way to Burgum’s desk, as it should have. Similar legislation has passed in other states, too.
Does it declare that all businesses have been entirely safe and concerned with their employees’ well-being during the difficult times presented by the pandemic? Of course not. We’ve all heard of businesses that have been lax with efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, and especially back in the first few months of the pandemic. We know some businesses have seen outbreaks, and possibly due to unsafe conditions and practices.
So yes, the employers who inadequately reacted to the pandemic — or those who outright didn’t care about safety procedures — likely will be shielded from liability suits thanks to HB 1175. That’s the new law’s unfortunate side effect. Our advice to businesses is to remain ever vigilant to the potential of outbreaks and adhere to all anti-mitigation practices to avoid even a single case of COVID-19 among workers. It’s not only good business, but it’s just right.
In the case of HB 1175, the good far outweighs the bad. Employers who did their best — creating the safest possible work environment and following mitigation protocols — should not have to fend off frivolous lawsuits from employees who claim they contracted the virus while at work.
It’s too hard to prove, and the costs associated with these lawsuits would unfairly sink North Dakota businesses as they emerge from the financial strain of the past year.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Grand Forks Herald.