Factory worker's death highlights debate over GOP-backed coronavirus liability shield

Engine plant employee returned to work with COVID-19
Engine plant employee returned to work with C... 02:47

As essential workers across the country accuse employers of failing to keep them safe on the job, Senate Republicans are pushing to shield businesses from legal liability if workers or customers are exposed to COVID-19. 

Mike Jackson was working a mandatory overtime shift at a Wisconsin engine plant in May when a co-worker saw him slumped over at his station. The 45-year-old was sent home for the day, but was back on the assembly line two days later.  

But when he returned, Jackson collapsed again and was sent to the hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. He died 10 days later. 

According to his mother Virl Newsom, Jackson was worried if he didn't show up, he'd risk losing his job at Briggs & Stratton, where he'd worked since 2017. 

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"They will fire you," Newsom told CBS News' Nancy Cordes. "He got four young kids he have to take care of. So he go to work sick." 

Six current Briggs & Stratton workers told CBS News the company required them to work face to face on the assembly line and that managers rarely wore masks. In mid-April, a month before his death, Jackson and his co-workers walked off the line to protest the lack of safety equipment but say that brought little change. Briggs & Stratton only began requiring its employees to wear masks this week due to a statewide mandate in Wisconsin. 

Federal safety regulators are investigating the workers' complaints. 

"The company doesn't care whether we live or die," Jackson's coworker Chance Zombor said.

Briggs & Stratton declined an interview, but in a statement told CBS News "we do not force anyone to come to work if they aren't feeling well…nor do we penalize them." The company insisted it follows CDC guidelines and said workers can apply for paid leave to self-quarantine. They also provided a photo showing plastic barriers between workers at their Wisconsin plant. But another photo provided by an employee a day later appears to show those same barriers rolled up.    

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Briggs & Stratton provided this photo [LEFT] showing plastic barriers between workers at their Wisconsin plant. But another photo [RIGHT] provided by an employee a day later appears to show those same barriers rolled up.  Briggs & Stratton / Courtesy of employee

The Republicans' proposal would make fighting back against employers more difficult. The new bill, sponsored by Senator John Cornyn of Texas and backed by the White House, would protect businesses, schools, non-profits, colleges, religious institutions and healthcare facilities from "the risk of a tidal wave of lawsuits." They argue this protection is essential to restarting the economy and say grossly negligent employers will still be held accountable. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently pointed to the number of lawsuits filed related to coronavirus as a reason these protections are necessary. But according to a COVID-19 complaint tracker run by law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, only 144 out of 3,979 suits that have been filed since March pertain to coronavirus exposure. Another 202 lawsuits allege unlawful termination related to COVID-19 including retaliation for voicing safety concerns and requesting coronavirus-related leave. 

Workers have already filed suits over workplace conditions against corporations like Walmart, Amazon, McDonald's, and Tyson Foods. 

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Mike Jackson's family is exploring legal remedies, but the Senate GOP bill would make winning a lawsuit more difficult. The GOP bill would protect companies who make a good faith effort to follow state and local health guidelines. In its statement to CBS News, Briggs & Stratton said it made such an effort. Then there is the issue of proving in a court of law that Jackson caught the virus on the job, which the company denies.   

Mike Jackson's mother wants Briggs & Stratton to take responsibility for her son's death. 

"If they were to protect the workers, I think my son probably would still have been here," she said. "What hurts so bad, I wasn't there with him. when he passed, he died by himself."