Corrupted: How the Pandemic Ramped Up Corporate Favoritism

With the Labor Day holiday next week, we're taking a break from Corrupted, and we'll return on Thursday, September 17.

Much of the focus on the government's pandemic response has been on the programs created by Congress and the public health guidelines released by the administration.

But the administration has also taken a series of seemingly small steps to roll back safety rules and protections for the public. When you add them up, a picture emerges of a government that favors corporate bigwigs and large industries over the health and well-being of the Americans who work for these companies and rely on them as consumers.

Before we dive in, let's look at one high-profile example to illustrate what we're talking about. In late April, meatpacking plants were seeing significant COVID-19 outbreaks. Meatpacking companies claim the scenario was entirely unpredictable, but for years experts and government officials have been warning them to be prepared for a pandemic with plans for social distancing and protective equipment for workers, as this ProPublica report lays out.

By April 27, there were at least 4,913 cases in 115 meat-packing facilities and at least 20 deaths, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data released in July.

With at least 20 facilities shut down due to outbreaks, President Donald Trump declared meatpacking plants essential under the Defense Production Act in late April.

This order did not technically force meat-processing companies to keep the plants open, but the message was clear: The federal government was fine with plants remaining open even as they were becoming virus incubators. As part of the order, the administration also issued safety guidelines for plants. And if companies made good-faith efforts to follow the guidelines, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would not cite them for making workers unsafe, and the companies would have a stronger defense in court if sued by a worker, as the New York Times explained. This likely undercut what should have been an avenue for workers to seek protections from unsafe working conditions.

By the end of May, there were a total of at least 16,233 cases in 239 facilities and at least 86 deaths, according to the CDC data released in July. These numbers may not be comprehensive, since only 28 states provided data on cases in meatpacking facilities and the data only includes “facilities with at least one laboratory-confirmed case,” as the CDC notes.

Workers at a plant in Pennsylvania have actually sued OSHA, accusing the agency of failing to properly respond to a May complaint that employees were pressured to work in unsafe conditions without the necessary protective equipment.

So who was this order supposed to help? Trump ostensibly urged meatpacking plants to remain open to secure a food supply for Americans. But does a plan that allows thousands of workers to fall ill really help those most in need during the pandemic? Or does it give companies the stamp of approval to put their bottom lines—and therefore their executives’ bank accounts—before their workers’ safety?

And now, the industry is lobbying for even broader liability protections.

This is just one example. Let’s look at what else the Trump administration has done to help executives and corporations at the expense of workers and consumers, all under the guise of saving the economy.

Nixing Safety Protections

In mid-March, the Trump administration issued an emergency declaration suspending rules that limit the hours truck drivers can drive without rest for vehicles carrying items deemed essential during the pandemic. The American Trucking Association has long pushed for changes to driver fatigue rules, likely because limits on how long truckers can work cut into profits. Representatives of the trade group visited the White House to discuss possible changes just a few days before the declaration, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The order sparked concern among highway safety advocates, and among some truck drivers.

Without those safety rules in place, Ranjit Singh was allowed to drive a tractor trailer for 16 hours straight, as documented by the Center for Public Integrity. Singh crashed into a stopped car, killing a passenger and her dog.

Enabling Predatory Lenders

In July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) retracted proposed rules that would have placed limits on payday lenders, which issue high interest, short-term loans that can send cash-strapped borrowers further into debt.

The payday lender rules initiated under the Obama administration had been on the Trump administration’s hit list for awhile, and were subject to intense industry lobbying, according to the New York Times. The Community Financial Services Association of America, which lobbied to stop the rules from going into effect, held its annual conference at the president’s Trump National Doral golf club in both 2018 and 2019, the Times noted.

Lawmakers criticized the CFPB’s move to scrap key limits on payday lenders amid the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of Americans went without work and lawmakers struggled to agree on an extension to expanded unemployment insurance. Now, predatory payday lenders will have an easier time lending to unemployed Americans, and profiting from high interest rates imposed on those now going without expanded aid and facing evictions.

What Does the EPA Have to do with COVID-19?

While the trucking safety rule rollback at least appeared related to the pandemic, the Trump administration also temporarily weakened some environmental protections, saying it was doing so due to COVID-19. That felt like more of a stretch.

In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would use its “enforcement discretion” to essentially allow companies to skip some routine testing, laboratory analysis, reporting, and training. The announcement came soon after the oil and gas industry appealed to Trump and the agency to do just that.

With the federal regulator reducing enforcement, states enacted similar policies, and an Associated Press review published last month found that states granted more than 3,000 waivers from environmental rules. Alaska allowed delayed inspections for tanks storing petroleum and told companies it would not punish them for all air pollution violations. Officials in Wyoming gave companies a pass on carbon emission rules in 300 cases. The list goes on—read the AP’s report for more examples of waivers granted supposedly because of the pandemic.

Several environmental groups are now suing the EPA, demanding that the agency investigate whether the reduction in enforcement has led to increased pollution.

Protection from Lawsuits

Now, some of the same industries that have already benefited from the Trump administration’s pandemic leniency want to make sure they won’t face consequences for the way they’ve treated their workers during the pandemic.

Meat-processing companies, which kept plants open even as thousands of workers became ill, are lobbying for additional liability protection and donating to the campaigns of state attorneys general, pushing legislation that would limit workers’ ability to sue their employers over unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, according to this report from The Intercept.

The influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also pushing for liability protections, sending model legislation to members of Congress.

The Trump administration and Senate Republicans have backed the push to include liability protections in Congress’s next COVID-19 relief package, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) hard line on the issue has contributed to the stalemate over additional pandemic relief.

So not only have corporate interests successfully made the case to some lawmakers that they need extra protections from lawsuits during the pandemic, but in doing so, they’ve contributed to lawmakers’ inability to pass additional relief funding for those who desperately need it.

Looking Ahead

As lawmakers consider liability protections and additional relief legislation, they should think about companies’ workers, not their executives. As Georgetown University law professor David C. Vladeck pointed out in Senate testimony this spring, companies are already protected from liability if they’ve taken reasonable measures to keep their employees safe. Only businesses that fail to do that would be at increased risk of lawsuit, so Congress must seriously consider whether this would simply increase the suffering of workers sickened on the job as a result of serious failure by their employers.

We’ve already seen meatpacking plants do little to protect the health and safety of their workers and get away with it. Congress should not encourage additional industries to endanger their workers just for the sake of their bottom line. Lawmakers must do what is best for all Americans, not just those with enough power and money to catch politicians’ attention.

Congress should also investigate whether the temporary rollback of safety and environmental rules harmed Americans by increasing accidents on the job and allowing additional pollution, as well as whether these policies actually helped the economy.