It should come as no surprise that corporations and other organizations are looking out for their own interests.
On Monday, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill providing civil immunity in COVID-19-related lawsuits. Essentially, the legislation would raise the legal standard necessary to prove a party is liable for COVID-19-related negligence. This liability shield has been a priority for Congressional Republicans throughout the pandemic, seen in their attempts to link civil immunity to federal aid.
If signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb, the bill would be detrimental to all Hoosier workers — including student workers on IU’s campus. By protecting businesses and organizations, Indiana legislators are prioritizing economic incentives over lives. Student workers are at-risk of losing their ability to legally defend themselves against dangerous actions by employers, including IU.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of this legislation is Section 10: “A person may not bring a class action lawsuit based on tort damages arising from COVID-19.” In legal situations with significant power imbalances — including a large educational institution like IU versus a single student — class action lawsuits can provide strength in numbers.
Last August, the IU McKinney School of Law published a paper on the legal effects of COVID-19 titled “Liability and Liability Shields.”
“Blanket immunities protect irresponsible businesses at the expense not only of their consumers but also their responsible competitors,” according to the paper.
While civil immunity legislation purports itself to protect small businesses who could otherwise not handle lawsuits, it also bolsters the edge large corporations and organizations have on their employees. Companies like Tyson Foods and Amazon have already faced lawsuits against their significant mistreatment of workers. Both companies employ workers in Indiana.
The Tyson Foods pork-processing plant in Logansport, Indiana, temporarily closed in April after around 900 employees tested positive for COVID-19. The bill would give Tyson Foods retroactive civil immunity and make a similar lawsuit nearly impossible in Indiana.
Accountability concerns are echoed by student workers. According to a 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 81% of undergraduate part-time students were employed and 43% of undergraduate full-time students were employed nationally.
“IU has a pattern of negligence towards graduate workers and towards the entire student population,” Mallika Khanna, a Media School master’s degree candidate and member of the IU Graduate Student Coalition, said.
While Khanna said she has been lucky enough to teach online classes, her friends have not been. One friend was given the option to teach online, but it would have doubled his workload — an option he could not feasibly handle.
Pallavi Rao, a Media School Ph.D. candidate and member of the IU Graduate Student Coalition, said she is unsurprised at the prospect of a liability shield, considering she had to sign one to live in on-campus housing this year. Rao said she has significant concern about both the bill and the housing addendum.
“While I wasn't quite aware about this bill coming to the General Assembly, I have witnessed several ways in which IU has already tried to dodge any kind of legal culpability,” Rao said.
The housing addendum Rao signed includes immunity language to protect IU from any lawsuits “related to the potential or actual exposure to contagious viruses like COVID-19.” This could mean IU understood the extra risks bringing students to on-campus housing posed. Rather than protect students, IU protected themselves first and foremost.
While IU did not testify in support or against the bill, it is important to note the legislation would supersede any existing policy on campus and ultimately benefit IU. In defense of IU’s housing addendum, IU spokesperson Chuck Carney pointed to the unchartered territory of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can’t control whether students always follow COVID protocols and can’t absolutely guarantee an RPS resident won’t catch COVID from another resident,” Carney said. “We are and will continue to follow all CDC guidance and provide the safest environment we can. But some factors involved in the spread of the disease are simply beyond our control and up to the behavior of students.”
Unsurprisingly, Holcomb will likely sign the bill into law, prioritizing the false narrative of economic growth over workers. It’s a narrative all workers have seen before and will continue to experience with legislation like the bill.
IU has everything to gain and nothing to lose from the bill. Student workers can’t say the same.
Alessia Modjarrad (she/her) is a junior studying economic consulting and law and public policy. She is the president of the College Democrats of Indiana and works as a political operative on various Democratic campaigns.