Despite Pandemic, Business As Usual At The Statehouse – Part III

The following is an article written by Ohio Chamber of Commerce Vice President, Government Affairs Keith Lake. This piece wraps-up the legislative session from January to July 2020. It appears in full in the July/August issue of Ohio Matters. This is the second part of a three-part series.

As the number of coronavirus cases started to decline in mid-April – and with the economy in a dire state – the Ohio Chamber urged Gov. DeWine to begin reopening the economy as soon as possible. Members of the General Assembly began to push for this, as well, and the House created a 2020 Economic Recovery Task Force to learn from businesses how they might assist in Ohio’s economic recovery and to hear what kinds of obstacles businesses expected once they were able to fully open up again.

The Ohio Chamber provided the Task Force with an assessment of how COVID-19 was impacting business operations in Ohio and gave a preliminary overview of seven challenges our members anticipated when allowed to resume operations: 1) continued lack of cash flow; 2) lagging consumer confidence; 3) legal liability; 4) regulatory burdens; 5) ongoing supply chain disruptions; 6) workforce readiness; and 7) workplace safety protocols.

Challenge number three was the one thing on this list that only lawmakers had the ability to do something positive about. Evidence of liability threats against businesses was already emerging, and the Ohio Chamber made protecting employers from opportunistic and counterproductive lawsuits our top priority as the legislature resumed normal activity and businesses were allowed to begin reopening in early May. Both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House voiced their intent to make COVID lawsuit immunity an immediate priority, as well. Key legislators worked closely with the Ohio Chamber to quickly craft good, strong bills limiting legal risks for businesses.

The House version of a liability protection bill, HB 606, was favorably reported out of committee by a bipartisan vote of 13-to-2 in late May. However, immediately prior to the House floor vote on HB 606, an amendment to create a presumption that COVID-19 is an occupational disease for certain classes of employees was added to the bill. The inclusion of this unrelated amendment completely shifts the burden to employers to prove that contraction of COVID-19 was not work-related and exposes them to runaway workers’ compensation costs, and instantly turned HB 606 from a bill beneficial to businesses into one that would be problematic if enacted. Fortunately, the Senate removed this amendment and subsequently passed HB 606. It now awaits further action by the House, which can either accept the bill without the occupational disease amendment or reject the changes made by the Senate, which would leave the bill in limbo.

The Senate also passed SB 308, its own bill granting businesses of all types qualified immunity from litigation that alleges harm resulting from exposure to the coronavirus. The Ohio Chamber strongly supports SB 308. It, too, awaits further House action.

Unfortunately, the House has now left Columbus for the summer and doesn’t currently plan to return until September at the earliest. Even with lawmakers talking constantly about how they’re fighting to fully reopen all of Ohio, it appears businesses like yours that are doing your part to responsibly return our state to prosperity have been let down by your lawmakers and left without legal protections when you need them the most.

During a time when the world has seemingly turned upside down, it’s unfortunate that the one constant is the unwillingness of some state lawmakers to support legislation that improves Ohio’s business climate – even in the midst of what has been an unprecedented economic disaster.

To read Part I click here.

To read Part II click here.