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Evers welcomes COVID bill that would extend liability protections

Crews board up the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison on Monday in preparation for possible unrest in response to national turmoil surrounding the transition to Joe Biden’s coming presidency. Inside the building, Senators were moving to pass the latest bill proposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Todd Richmond)

Crews board up the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison on Monday in preparation for possible unrest in response to national turmoil surrounding the transition to Joe Biden’s coming presidency. Inside the building, Senators were moving to pass the latest bill proposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Todd Richmond)

Wisconsin’s State Senate move forward on Tuesday with a revised COVID-19 relief bill in attempt at reaching a compromise with Gov. Tony Evers and shielding businesses from lawsuits over their handling of the virus.

The Senate approved its version of the coronavirus response bill after stripping out several policies the state Assembly had approved last week. Among the removed provisions was one that would have prevented employers from requiring that their workers get a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment.

Evers on Tuesday praised the Senate’s bill and urged the state Assembly to pass the revised legislation.

“Although it’s not the COVID compromise we originally proposed, AB 1 as amended by the Senate is a good start to support our state’s response to this pandemic,” Evers said in a statement “The Assembly should pass AB 1 as it was amended today and send it to my desk for my signature without delay.”

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, a Republican, stressed that the revisions adopted on Tuesday came following negotiations with Evers and were tailored to earn the governor’s approval. The bill, for instance, would extend the hours of operation of state’s unemployment-insurance call center

“Passing this bill responds to the needs of frontline healthcare providers and gives our state’s economy the tools to safely re-open without the fear of frivolous lawsuits,” LeMahieu said in a statement.

Despite the negotiations with Evers, some of the governor’s fellow Democrats spoke out Tuesday against the provision meant to provide blanket protection for businesses, schools and other employers against COVID-19-related lawsuits. Senate Democrats also unsuccessfully tried to pass their own amendment that would have directed millions of dollars toward rent, food and other forms of assistance.

“We need to start catching up here and recognize that there are people and businesses in Wisconsin that need our help,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat from Middleton.
During a hearing the previous day, various business groups had expressed approval of the legislation’s proposal to provide civil-liability protection against COVID-related lawsuits to companies, schools, nonprofits and other organizations. The supporters included The Wisconsin Builders Association, the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

“For small business owners, compliance with COVID-related laws, regulations, emergency orders and guidelines has been and continues to be challenging, costly and time-consuming,” said Brian Dake, of the trade group Wisconsin Independent Businesses. “Nonetheless, they have done so because operating safely and responsibility is of paramount importance.”

The proposed liability provision would give businesses and other organizations blanket protection from COVID-19-related suits, even in instances when they hadn’t followed local, state or national orders intended to prevent the spread of the virus. Employers, however, could still be held liable if they were found to have engaged in “reckless,” “wanton” or “intentional misconduct.”

At least 16 states have enacted rules providing employers with some form of legal shield from COVID-19 lawsuits. Michigan and some of the others, though, extend liability protection only to companies that can show they have generally followed stay-at-home guidelines.

Among other revisions, Wisconsin Senate’s COVID-19 bill strips out various original proposals that were opposed by Democrats. The removed sections include provisions that would have given lawmakers more control over how federal COVID-19 aid is spent, kept local health departments from closing businesses for more than two weeks at a time and prevented companies from requiring workers to get a coronavirus vaccine.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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