News Brief: Task Force Transition, Liability Lawsuit Debate, Stimulus Checks

May 6, 2020
Originally published on May 6, 2020 8:19 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The White House Coronavirus Task Force - they of course oversee the administration's response to COVID-19.

NOEL KING, HOST:

For now anyway - the Trump administration is talking about phasing it out. President Trump seems like he wants to be done with the pandemic and focus on other things, like the economy. Here he is in Arizona yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we're now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form of safety and opening. And we'll have a different group probably set up for that.

GREENE: All right. Let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So when could this happen, and how significant is this move?

KEITH: Yeah. So Vice President Pence, who has been leading the task force since late February, told reporters that things would wind down for the task force around Memorial Day or early June. He said agencies like FEMA would be ready to manage the response in a more traditional manner instead of having the task force design.

You know, this is a multiagency group that included medical experts, including Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, scientists with real experience dealing with epidemics. And this was the group that convinced the president that he should back those guidelines to slow the spread, to keep people at home, close schools and businesses and only gradually reopen once things were stable. They've met face-to-face almost every day since March. But a little more than a week ago, they stopped briefing the public.

GREENE: I just think about Pence saying a more traditional response. I mean, this crisis is nothing close to traditional. And experts say that it's still going to be a crisis for the months to come. Right?

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, if you look at the charts, it looks nationally like there's a plateau. But in many parts of the country, the case numbers continue to rise. There are hotspots. There are numerous states where they haven't stabilized to the metrics that the task force recommended to begin lifting restrictions on activities. But President Trump has been pretty clear that he wants things to reopen and he's not going to use his bully pulpit to go after governors who are reopening sooner than the guidelines call for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And yes - will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.

GREENE: Well, what about Dr. Fauci? I mean, is this the end of this group altogether? Are they all going to be cut out of meetings, you know, that are looking at how to deal with all this?

KEITH: Well, a senior administration official insisted to me that the doctors will, quote, "continue to play an important advisory role on how to proceed safely." Dr. Fauci has said that he understands that there's economic pressure to get back to normal. But in a CNN interview Monday night, he warned against decisions that could cost some people their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: It's the balance of something that's a very difficult choice. Like, how many deaths and how much suffering are you willing to accept to get back to what you want to be some form of normality sooner rather than later?

KEITH: Well, in terms of deaths, the number right now is 71,000 Americans. And it continues to rise at an alarming pace. Some models say that there could be a sharp increase as people relax the social distancing measures and go back to work.

GREENE: Can I just ask you, before we go, Tam, about this whistleblower complaint we're seeing from from Richard Bright. He's this scientist who helped lead vaccine development for the government. What's the latest on this?

KEITH: Well, Bright said that he was demoted after he refused to promote hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients. This is a drug that President Trump was promoting a lot. His lawyer Debra Katz told All Things Considered that he shared nonclassified concerns with a reporter and he was punished for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DEBRA KATZ: He objected to efforts by the administration to essentially sell snake oil to promote chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a panacea when they knew it wasn't. And Dr. Bright wants the American public to know that science should prevail here.

KEITH: A spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department said Bright was transferred to a different job at NIH and that the department is disappointed that he has not shown up.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

GREENE: So in this pandemic, we have talked a lot about ways to keep us safe and to protect ourselves.

KING: Right. And usually, we're talking about gear like masks and gloves and hand sanitizer. But businesses starting to reopen want a kind of protection called a liability shield. If, for example, a worker gets sick on the job, companies want to be protected from lawsuits. Yesterday, I talked to Neil Bradley. He's the chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED NPR BROADCAST)

NEIL BRADLEY: We're not asking for some type of immunity. We're asking for a safe harbor. So the CDC, OSHA and a state public health authority issues recommendations. A business does its best to comply with those recommendations. That should be a safe harbor for them against those type of frivolous lawsuits.

KING: Worker advocates and unions, as you might imagine, feel very differently about that.

GREENE: Right. There's a debate here. And let's talk about it with NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So you have congressional Republicans who are looking for a way to shield employers from these kinds of lawsuits. They're getting pushback. I mean, talk us through this.

HORSLEY: Advocates for both workers and consumers are pushing back. They say employers don't need special liability protection here - that employers are already shielded from most lawsuits of this type by the workers' compensation system. Typically, workers who get hurt or sick on the job have to go through that system unless the employer's done something really egregious. What's more, attorney Remington Gregg of the advocacy group Public Citizen says if your goal is to encourage reopening businesses, then enacting this kind of liability protection might actually backfire.

REMINGTON GREGG: If you're granting legal immunity for businesses right now, it's going to sabotage the efforts to get workers and consumers back. If people don't trust that stores, offices and workplaces are safe, they will refuse to return.

HORSLEY: We've also heard complaints from both worker advocates and employers that the CDC and OSHA haven't done enough to spell out what makes a workplace safe.

GREENE: Well, Scott, we saw last week the president ordering those meatpacking plants to stay open even though there were hundreds of people working there who have gotten sick. I mean, does that offer us a window into how this this could play out?

HORSLEY: Yeah. A lot of workers were really unhappy with that executive order. They felt it took away their leverage to demand better working conditions in those plants, which really have become hotspots for the coronavirus. Now, the administration said it was acting to protect the nation's food supply. But one union leader I spoke with, Kim Cordova in Colorado, she says she felt like the administration was protecting plant owners at the expense of their employees.

KIM CORDOVA: People feel helpless. I mean, they feel like they have no voice. They're going to force them to go to work, but they're not given the safety protocols. And then companies don't have to worry about their liability. Well, it's going to get - this is really going to get worse. And let me tell you - there's not people lining up to be packing house workers.

HORSLEY: Now, packing houses, where workers typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder, might be an extreme example. But workers in all kinds of industries are going to be asking, what kinds of precautions is my employer taking, and do I feel safe going back to work?

GREENE: But there's another really important part of this. Right? I mean, you've got tens of millions of people who have filed for unemployment. Aren't they going to feel economic pressure to get back to work to get that paycheck, even if they do have doubts about their safety?

HORSLEY: Yes, some may. And their willingness to accept that risk may depend in part on, you know, what kind of financial cushion they have. As businesses start to reopen, some workers could lose their eligibility for unemployment benefits. Typically, you can't keep collecting unemployment if your old boss offers to hire you back. Now, there are some exceptions, though, if the state decides you have a good reason not to go back to work or if the job's no longer suitable.

In Texas, for example, the governor has said older workers and people who share a household with older folks don't have to go back to a job. They can keep their unemployment benefits. But for some workers, this is going to be a dilemma as more businesses start to open their doors and the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: For millions of Americans, receiving a $1,200 stimulus check was supposed to be a lifeline.

KING: Yes. The thing is you'd actually have to be alive to use it. And I'm not being snarky here. While the IRS was rushing to send out more than 130 million payments, it made some mistakes, and some of the checks were sent to people who are dead.

GREENE: And NPR Washington investigative correspondent Tim Mak has been looking at this. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: What is the scope of this problem? How often did this happen?

MAK: Well, we just don't know. And it's not clear the government knows either. But if you do some back-of-the-envelope math, you realize that the potential pool of people affected could be in the millions. The CDC estimates that 2.8 million Americans died in 2018, for example. And there are signs that people who have died more than two years ago are receiving payments. I spoke to one woman whose mother died in January 2018 who received the coronavirus relief payment last month - April 2020.

GREENE: This is a lot of people, potentially, and a lot of money, it sounds like from what you're saying. I mean, how could this have happened?

MAK: Well, the IRS does not typically have information on the deceased in America, but other parts of the government such as the Social Security Administration do. It appears there was no cross-referencing before checks went out, and this has been a very quick process. I spoke to Mark Everson, who was IRS commissioner from 2003 to 2007. He told me that the IRS has generally been doing a good job.

MARK EVERSON: But there's a real trade-off of speed versus accuracy in the processing.

MAK: Right. A real trade-off between getting these checks out quick and making sure it's all accurate. The federal government seems to have made an error in these types of cases, and it's compounding it by not providing clear guidance.

GREENE: Well, can you give any guidance? I mean, what is the government saying at all if, say, someone notices that their deceased loved one gets one of these relief checks?

MAK: That's exactly it. We're not sure, and we're still not clear about this. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said a week ago that any payments to the deceased would be a mistake and should be returned. But there's no clear method on how to do this. I talked to Teresa Wilmot. She's a 71-year-old in Rockford, Ill. She lost her partner of 39 years, Frank Dika, just two months ago. And last month, he received a payment, and she's been trying to return it ever since.

THERESA WILMOT: I'm coping with Frank's death pretty well at this point. I'm not over it. I probably will never be over it. But it didn't - that part didn't bother me. I'm probably angrier at the government for sending out a payment to somebody who's deceased.

MAK: Various people have tried different methods. Some of the families I've spoken to have sought advice from their senators. They have no guidance. Theresa went to the IRS.

WILMOT: So I went online to the address on the letter and looked for a long time trying to find some way that I could first send the payment back. And I couldn't find that, so I looked for a way to contact somebody at the IRS or U.S. Treasury or whatever to return the payment, and I couldn't find that.

MAK: So NPR did not fare much better than Theresa. The IRS declined to answer questions. The Treasury Department hasn't answered questions for us either.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Tim Mak. Tim, thanks so much for this reporting.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.