First responders who catch the coronavirus will qualify for workers' compensation starting Wednesday, with Minnesota leaders predicting that claims could total hundreds of millions of dollars.
State lawmakers signed off on the workers' compensation measure Tuesday without knowing exactly where the money will come from. State projections show claims could cost around $320 million, and the price tag might rise to $580 million, said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
"If we don't pass this bill today, they will not have protection tomorrow," Winkler said.
Lawmakers said they plan to continue work on a funding plan. But they wanted health care workers, child-care providers, firefighters and others on the front lines to have access to financial assistance if they contract COVID-19. Under the new law, emergency workers who fall ill from the coronavirus will be presumed to have gotten it on the job.
Local government groups raised concerns with the lack of a clear long-term funding source to pay the new benefits. The workers' compensation system is not designed to handle a pandemic and the state needs to find a different way to pay for the requests, League of Minnesota Cities lobbyist Don Reeder said in a statement.
"As it now stands, local governments will have no choice but to pass along these costs to property taxpayers at a time when they can least afford it," Reeder said.
Nonetheless, the bill passed with unanimous support in the Senate and a bipartisan 130-4 vote in the House. The votes followed several weeks of fast-paced negotiations. A scant number of legislators sat on House and Senate floors, some wearing face masks. Others called in their votes from across the Capitol complex or from their homes to follow social distancing guidelines.
A task force should be set up to study the issue and look at what public and private resources could be used, including the federal coronavirus aid package, Winkler said. Senate bill sponsor Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, said he believes a funding plan will come together in the next month.
To qualify for relief, front-line workers need to provide lab tests showing they have COVID-19 or provide documentation from a licensed health care practitioner who diagnosed them with the virus.
More than 20 Minnesota emergency workers have filed COVID-19 related claims, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. But only those who apply after the bill is enacted will be eligible.
"These workers on the front lines will have one less thing to worry about when they are at work taking care of Minnesotans," said Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona.
Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.