Democratic Plan Would Give Workers More Time To File Legal Claims Due To Pandemic

The proposal contrasts sharply with the stance of Republicans, who want to shield employers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Congressional Democrats are hoping to bolster workers’ legal rights during the coronavirus pandemic by extending the amount of time they have to file employment lawsuits.

A proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), Sen. Tina Smith (Minn.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) on Wednesday would temporarily increase the statute of limitations for filing complaints related to wage theft, discrimination, safety whistleblowing and other workplace issues.

The legislation would lengthen the typical deadlines to account for any overlap with the pandemic, as determined by the federal government’s emergency declarations. It would add another 90 days on top of that as well.

The lawmakers said doing so would address the unusual barriers created by the coronavirus, which has closed or reduced services at many federal courthouses and apparently has overwhelmed many employment lawyers fielding calls from workers.

“Because of COVID-19, workers already facing terrible health risks are also confronting increased barriers to legal representation and worried the clock will run out on seeking relief,” Warren said in a statement. “Our bill will make sure workers’ rights aren’t thrown off to the side because of a public health emergency by extending the period of time workers have to file claims.”

The move draws a clear contrast with congressional Republicans, who are trying to rein in workers’ legal rights during the pandemic. GOP members are hoping to give companies immunity from lawsuits filed by workers and consumers stemming from the coronavirus. The Senate held a hearing on the issue Tuesday, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said shielding corporations would relieve a “stressed” economy.

Democrats have opposed the broad-based immunity pushed by Republicans, though their new bill does not address that issue in particular. Instead, it focuses on claims made under wage-and-hour, civil rights, collective bargaining and occupational health laws.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats want to lengthen the statute of limitations for worker lawsuits due to the pandemic.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats want to lengthen the statute of limitations for worker lawsuits due to the pandemic.
AMANDA SABGA via Getty Images

The coronavirus has created an unprecedented workplace safety crisis, and it’s likely that workers will be filing a raft of complaints claiming they were retaliated against for reporting unsafe working conditions. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, workers have 30 days to file such a claim, but Democrats say the unusual circumstances of the pandemic call for more time.

Similarly, workers who say they were discriminated against for supporting a union have six months to file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board ― a timeframe that would also be extended by the Democratic plan. Many workers have already claimed their employers used the pandemic as a pretext to get rid union supporters in their ranks.

Under the Democratic plan, any statute-of-limitations time that elapsed during the pandemic would be added back once the federal government declares the national emergency to be over, along with the extra 90 days.

DeLauro said in a statement that lengthening the statute of limitations to account for the pandemic “is the right thing to do.”

The Democratic proposal has the backing of left-leaning groups such as the National Employment Law Project, the Economic Policy Institute and the National Women’s Law Center, along with the National Employment Lawyers Association. It is certain to draw pushback from employer-friendly Republicans who want to limit workers’ legal recourse, and faces dim prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, issued a paper in late March that bolsters Democrats’ case that workers face unique legal hurdles because of the pandemic. CRS found that court closures and other factors “may impede litigants and their counsel from pursuing cases in a timely manner,” and that there were steps lawmakers could take to address the problem.

“If Congress wished to provide courts with additional leeway to respond to the current crisis it could enact legislation to relax existing limits on filing deadlines,” the paper noted.

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