These Companies Worked To Shape Paid Leave Laws During COVID

Corporations say we're all in this together, but lobbying records show they're focused on their own agendas

Feel-good ads on television have lately told us that corporations really believe we are all in this together during the coronavirus crisis -- but a review of new federal lobbying records reveals that many of the biggest corporate players have been aggressively lobbying to protect their own interests, at the expense of their workers. 

In one instance, one of the world’s largest rideshare companies pushed to give itself a special “safe harbor” from basic employment laws designed to protect workers. In another instance, employees at the largest corporations were denied federal protections for paid sick leave during the pandemic. 

Thousands of companies and trade organizations reported lobbying on legislation related to the coronavirus pandemic during the first three months of 2020. Most groups’ filings simply listed the bills or vague descriptions -- but some filings offer key clues.

Uber’s Safe Harbor From Worker Protections

Uber announced last month it was offering its drivers up to two weeks of paid leave if they are infected with coronavirus. While the announcement was covered widely, the company hasn’t made it easy for drivers to actually qualify for sick leave. Uber has also been lobbying in Washington to ensure that extending sick leave to its drivers doesn’t prevent the company from continuing to classify them as independent contractors, rather than employees entitled to stricter workplace protections.

The New York Times’ David McCabe reported earlier this month that Uber “has asked lawmakers to shield it from lawsuits over how its drivers are classified if it provides the drivers with medical supplies or compensation during the pandemic, according to a mid-March email.”

Lobbying records show that Ulman Public Policy & Federal Relations, a Republican-led firm, disclosed lobbying for Uber during the first three months of the year on “issues related to the sharing economy and expansion of access to benefits for independent contractors; supporting safe harbor for platform companies to ensure sick leave benefits for gig workers during the COVID-19 national emergency.”

Invariant, the firm run by Democratic fundraiser Heather Podesta, appears to have been lobbying for Uber in the same area. The firm reported that Anne MacMillan, a former Obama administration official who previously advised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had been engaged to “monitor legislative efforts to [respond] to the COVID-19 economic crisis with respect to the gig economy and independent contractors; discuss proposals to provide protection from future employment classification liability challenges.”

It appears that Uber’s lobbying is paying off. Earlier this month, Republicans on the House Committee on Education and Labor wrote a blog post asserting that “Congress should enact a statutory safe harbor to ensure that providing health and safety-related benefits will not be used as evidence of an employer-employee relationship.”

Other Groups Lobbying On Paid Sick Leave

In the first legislative response to the coronavirus crisis, Congress passed a bill to expand family and medical leave protections for workers -- but the initiative was watered down to only cover firms that employ fewer than 500 workers, meaning millions of workers were denied those new protections. That was a victory for myriad corporate interests lobbying on the legislation.

For instance, the National Pork Producers Council, a trade group for the pork industry, reported that it was “monitoring implementation of unemployment and family medical leave provisions” in the coronavirus-related bills that have passed Congress so far. The group said it had also been conducting “general education on worker compensation and hazard pay issues related to COVID-19 pandemic.”

Employees in meatpacking plants often work shoulder-to-shoulder in factory lines -- and that hasn’t changed during the coronavirus outbreak. In recent weeks, hundredsof employees in pork production facilities have tested positive for coronavirus. The president of the National Farmers Union recently noted that many of the workers in the plants “often lack access to appropriate protective equipment or paid sick leave, making them among the most vulnerable to coronavirus.”

Last week, a worker at a Smithfield Foods pork production facility in Missouri filed a lawsuit alleging that employees can't cover their mouths to cough because the meat processing lines move too quickly, and claiming that employees are discouraged from taking time off if they are sick. The lawsuit also alleged that the company’s bonus offer to employees -- an extra $500 if they show up for every scheduled shift in April -- was prompting people to come into work even if they might be infected.

As of last week, meatpacking plants responsible for 25 percent of pork production in the United States were closed, sparking concerns about potential meat shortages around the country. 

Other groups that lobbied on paid sick leave measures in the coronavirus bills included: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the Business Roundtable; General Motors; the Credit Union National Association; the American Trucking Associations; Home Depot (Invariant, again); the ​Taco Bell Franchise Management Advisory Council.