OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A sweeping bill that would shield Nebraska businesses and local governments from coronavirus-related lawsuits won initial approval from state lawmakers on Tuesday, despite complaints that senators haven't done enough for workers who were at risk.

Lawmakers advanced the proposal, 39-3, through the first of three required votes. The measure would bar pandemic-related lawsuits against businesses or governments as long as they were following federal public health guidelines.

At least 29 other states have enacted laws addressing the issue, including 12 that are similar to the Nebraska proposal, said state Sen. Tom Briese, of Albion. Kentucky and Arizona passed broad protections for businesses last month.

“We need to do everything we can to help our state recover from the impact of the pandemic, and that's what this bill's intended to do,” said Briese, the measure's sponsor.

Briese said Nebraska businesses face the threat of “needless, unwarranted” lawsuits from the pandemic if lawmakers don't pass legal protections. The proposal has strong backing from Nebraska businesses, hospitals, schools, counties and cities. Organizations representing Nebraska trial attorneys and public school teachers opposed it.

Some senators also criticized the bill because they said lawmakers haven't done enough to help on-the-ground workers who faced the pandemic directly, risking their own health because they had a job that needed to be done in-person. Lawmakers this year have rejected paid sick-leave requirements for businesses and additional coronavirus protections for meatpacking workers.

Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, proposed an amendment to the lawsuit bill that would have required businesses with 50 or more employers to allow unpaid sick leave for workers. Hunt said it would give “wins to both employers and employees," but the legislative speaker declared the proposal not germane to the main bill, and lawmakers did not vote on it.

Sen. Matt Hansen, of Lincoln, said the state is taking “a serious misstep with liability protection for businesses, not directly for the people of Nebraska.”


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