Business leader: To reopen Pa. business sector needs safe harbor from liability lawsuits; smart public policy


A Pennsylvania business leader on Tuesday outlined a set of initiatives designed to safely re-open the business sector and jumpstart the coronavirus stalled state economy.

In a webinar press meeting, PA Chamber of Business and Industry president and CEO Gene Barr noted policies that he said were critical to the successful relaunching of the Pennsylvania economy, including providing some form of safe harbor to businesses against coronavirus-related liability as well as business friendly public policies.

Barr stressed that the goal of the chamber’s initiative is to promote economic recovery.

“It’s incredible thinking about this year ...that less than two months ago we had a vibrant economy that we literally slammed the brakes on and stopped this economy” Barr said. “Now the goal is again to take a look at what we need to do to reopen safely....and find out what we need to do to get people to reinvest and invest perhaps for the first time in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

He advocated a policy that would establish a safe harbor for the business sector to protect businesses from liability. Barr said the policy should be narrow, targeted and temporary.

“We are hearing from members who say, ‘I could do everything right. I could follow all protection, follow all the guidelines and could still be hit with a lawsuit,” Barr said. “We are already seeing trial lawyers on social media trying to find clients to bring litigation. That is a real problem. We have people expressing reservations about bringing their business back because they don’t want to have to say, ‘I did everything right and still got sued.”

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He said such a policy could either come from the legislative or executive branch.

Since the March 15 order that shuttered the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, more than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians have filed for regular unemployment compensation as the economy has taken a behemoth hit with thousands of businesses being forced to shutter.

The state is now on the path toward reopening its economy, however, with northcentral and northwestern counties on Friday moving into the “yellow phase” of a three-tiered color-coded reopening plan. Those counties will still be asked to exercise caution and continue their social distancing practices, among other restrictions.

The plan lifts closure orders on businesses like manufacturing plants, retail stores and offices that were forced to close in mid-March to help stop the spread of coronavirus if they didn’t make the administration’s original list of life-sustaining businesses.

Part of the PA Chamber’s business initiative is the launch of the ‘Bringing PA Back’, which provides information for employers, including guidance from trusted sources on workplace readiness and policy recommendations geared to reviving the state economy.

“Now that the Commonwealth has worked together to successfully slow the growth of COVID-19, we’re entering the re-opening phase – which means it is critical for businesses to receive the information they need in order to safely re-open their facilities,” Barr said.

Asked if he thought the state economy would rebound to pre-March levels, Barr said it would ultimately depend on the course of the pandemic - and whether the crisis surged again in the fall.

“I don’t think anybody can anticipate that at this point,” he said.

Barr expressed concerns about the unemployment compensation system and the idea that some people might be more willing to collect unemployment than work.

“We understand certain people can’t work but it is not acceptable to say, 'I‘m making more money unemployed than employed therefore I am not coming back," Barr said.

That outlook, he said, hurts the ability of employers to start up, to turn federal loans into grants and will ultimately drain the unemployment compensation system in Pennsylvania.

Barr excoriated the calls from Gov. Tom Wolf to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“At a time when we have businesses literally struggling to survive to send the message that if you make it out of the pandemic and the crisis, we are going to layer on additional costs, is absolutely the wrong message to send.”

The Bringing PA Back website includes a state map identifying the re-opening process by county, as well as an overview of the Wolf administration’s guidance for each phase.