Georgia hospitals and businesses are set to gain new liability protections amid the COVID-19 pandemic through legislation Gov. Brian Kemp signed this week.
A bill Kemp signed into law Wednesday aims to shield businesses and health-care facilities in Georgia from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus in all but the worst negligence or recklessness cases.
The liability protections take effect immediately and will apply for anyone who contracts coronavirus until July 14, 2021.
Business representatives including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce have hailed the measure as a means for a range of enterprises from mom-and-pop shops to sports stadiums to feel assured they will not face crippling litigation due to coronavirus.
But unions and worker advocates have worried employees in the state will be left in the lurch as thousands of Georgia’s frontline and low-wage workers struggle to keep themselves safe from the virus either in the workplace or the courts.
COVID-19 liability protections were a contentious source of last-minute debate in the Georgia General Assembly as state lawmakers wrapped up the 2020 legislative session in late June.
Democratic lawmakers condemned the measure, joining union representatives in calls for more safety considerations to help workers.
Conversely, many Republican lawmakers in the state Senate argued the bill would be too weak to fully protect businesses and hospitals by making “gross negligence” the minimum threshold for bringing a damage claim.
That threshold marked a compromise between health-care professionals, business leaders and trial attorneys struck during the final days of the session. Attorneys on both sides of the issue have described gross negligence as a high legal hurdle but not impossible to meet.
The session, which was paused in March as coronavirus cases soared, also saw passage of a tax credit program for businesses that produce protective gear like masks and hand sanitizer and an extension of expanded state unemployment benefits in place since March.
As of Thursday afternoon, according to data from the state Department of Public Health, there have been 204,895 total cases of the coronavirus in Georgia, 20,002 hospitalizations and 4,026 deaths. In Bartow County, there have been 492 confirmed cases in the last two weeks, 1,772 since the outbreak began, including 216 hospitalizations and 61 total deaths.
Speaker Ralston issues plea for federal aid for coronavirus-depleted state budgets
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston is asking Congress for $500 billion in aid to state governments suffering the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a letter to U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., this week, Ralston called for assistance to the states to be included in the latest federal COVID-19 relief legislation, which is stuck in Congress amid sharp disagreements between congressional Democrats and Republicans and the Trump administration.
The state is doing its part to respond to plummeting tax revenues resulting from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, Ralston wrote. He pointed to the 10% across-the-board spending cuts the General Assembly imposed in the fiscal 2021 budget lawmakers adopted in late June.
“In addition to reductions that include hiring freezes, new programs slated to begin in [fiscal] 2020 were rescinded,” he wrote. “The only significantly new service approved is to address Georgia’s unacceptable maternal mortality rates.”
The state also has reduced its budget reserves by more than half since the start of fiscal 2020 just more than a year ago, from $2.7 billion to about $1.3 billion, Ralston wrote.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in May earmarking more than $1 trillion for state and local governments. Thus far, however, the White House has offered $150 billion, the same amount states and cities received from a coronavirus relief package Congress passed back in March.
“Georgia’s economy is typically a strong network of diverse revenue streams, but the pandemic has affected all of them, even those like motor fuels that typically resist downturns,” Ralston wrote. “The lagging effect on our largest revenue sources, income and sales taxes, is presenting us with additional challenges for months to come.”
Without significant congressional assistance, more spending reductions could be in the offing. Kemp announced Wednesday he intends to call the General Assembly back to the Capitol for a special session later this year in part to take up adjustments to the budget.
Unemployment claims decline in Georgia amid complaints of slow processing
First-time unemployment claims in Georgia fell by 11,053 last week to 73,931, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.
Still, the nearly 3.4 million initial claims the state agency has processed since March 21 is more than the labor department handled during the last eight years combined.
The labor agency has taken some heat this week from Democrats in the General Assembly over a backlog of unprocessed claims and benefit payments that has piled up as the number of unemployed Georgians soared during the coronavirus pandemic.
Georgia House Democrats have held news conferences across the state to call attention to the number of unprocessed payments, a problem that has become even more critical since Congress allowed the federal program paying $600 a week to unemployed Americans to expire at the end of last week.
“We are at a critical time for many Georgians,” said Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex. “Failure to pass the extended unemployment benefits has left individuals, families, workers and businesses at risk.”
Responding to the criticism Thursday, Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said 92% of all valid claims submitted in the last 19 weeks have been paid. However, more than 135,000 other initial unemployment claims have been filed by Georgians who have not worked in the last 18 months and are, thus, ineligible for unemployment benefits, he said.
“Unemployment insurance is not a guaranteed benefit,” Butler said. “Each claim has to be thoroughly reviewed for eligibility and verified before payments can be issued.
“A claimant may not be granted benefits if they have not worked and earned insured wages in the past 18 months or were fired for cause or quit a job of their own accord. Many times, the employer and employee have different versions of what happened, and that takes even longer to gather information for a complete decision.”
Since March 21, the job sector accounting for the most first-time unemployment claims is accommodation and food services with 802,990 claims. The health care and social assistance job sector is next with 398,353 claims, followed closely by retail trade with 368,039.