Just months ago, Arizona was tops in job creation and business formation, driven by a decade of successful economic policy and capital investment that created new opportunities and bettered the lives of our residents. Today, many small businesses are on the brink of shuttering and families are fighting to stay afloat.
Earlier this year business owners were afforded desperately needed federal assistance in the way of the Small Busines Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and grants. More than 80,000 Arizona businesses have received $8.5 billion in relief. Even if the program is extended, these businesses must remain viable in order to qualify for the loan forgiveness provisions that made the package helpful for protecting jobs.
A big part of what that will require is liability reform. Just one lawsuit brought on by a COVID claim could wipe out any chance most businesses have for recovery.
Americans want to return to work without the threat of an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits. But according to recent data, two-thirds of independent business owners fear being sued and the barriers lawsuits might present to a full economic recovery. Dozens of Arizona groups agree this is a major issue.
Business owners by their very nature are creative thinkers, problem solvers and freedom lovers. In order to have a chance at real economic recovery, we don’t need government trying to do the job of the private sector. We need government to do its job to make sure the marketplace is fair and safe so America can get back to work.
Reopening our economy will be a team sport. Employers need a clear roadmap as to what rules business must follow to mitigate risk. Consumers need direction in order to comply with those guidelines and protect themselves. Anyone acting in good faith to stop the spread of the virus and protect people in our communities as we work together to reopen deserves to be protected from opportunistic litigation.
As Congress reconvenes, we are asking our leaders to support COVID-related liability reforms. Many states have already passed laws but there is no clear, cohesive universal standard. We need Congress to act to provide temporary and targeted relief from the threat of unwarranted legal action for hardworking Americans fighting to save their businesses, families and livelihoods.
To be clear, we are not suggesting wholesale immunity from gross negligence or intentional acts on the part of business. What is needed is a legal safe harbor for those following current public health guidelines to the best of their ability.
This is especially important in Arizona where small business represents more than 99% of all business in our state and about half of our state’s economic impact. More than one million Arizonans – over 40 percent – employed in the private workforce work for a small business.
COVID liability reform is just as important for non-profits, government agencies, health care workers and educators. Health care workers want to focus on caring for patients and need their reserves for the herculean task of getting to the other side of this crisis. The strength, comfort and healing provided by churches and non-profits are needed now more than ever. Schools and colleges are eager to serve their students in the safest learning environment they can. They need to be able to direct dollars to modify classrooms, not pay for lawyers in courtrooms.
Senate Republicans are proposing legislation that would put limited and commonsense reforms in place for the duration of the pandemic. There is bipartisan support for this effort, but it will take strong leadership and teamwork to get this done.
Arizona has a long and proud tradition of working hard and working together. We may be challenged, but we remain undaunted in the effort to keep Arizonans strong and healthy. Coming together now to provide a bit more certainty for small businesses, families, and employees will make that mission a little easier.
Hon. Eileen Klein is the owner of Vive AZ, LLC, a small business based in Arizona. Her public service includes serving as the 35th state treasurer of Arizona and chief of staff to Governor Janice K. Brewer. She is president emerita of the Arizona Board of Regents and a former member of the State Board of Education.