Bravo to the Minnesota Legislature for acting nearly unanimously to allow first responders to get workers’ compensation in the event they contract COVID-19.
Health care workers, nurses, police, firefighters, child care providers and others who are being asked to risk their health to provide essential services deserve this protection. Thanks to the bill, those who contract COVID-19 will be presumed to have gotten it at work rather than having to prove they contracted the disease on the job.
There has been much praise for first responders during the pandemic, and deservedly so. But it’s important to back up that thanks and praise with something more tangible. Financial assistance in the event an illness that has sent most of society into hiding fits that bill.
It was gratifying to see unanimous passage in the Senate and near-unanimous support in the House. It’s not all that should be done for first responders, but as Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said, “These workers on the front lines will have one less thing to worry about.”
Those seeking workers’ compensation under the bill will need to provide lab results showing they have COVID-19 or provide documentation of a diagnosis from a licensed health care practitioner — yet another reason why more widespread testing is needed.
There had been an attempt get the protections built into the $330 million COVID-19 response package adopted in late March. Unfortunately, that effort faltered in the face of opposition from some business groups and Senate Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said at the time that support would be contingent on full backing from the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council, made up of business and labor representatives.
However — and this is important — all sides persevered. Productive negotiations, stripped of partisan rancor, resulted in a strong coalition, though concerns about cost remain. Those concerns are valid. Projections put the cost at $300 million or more.
Lawmakers have said they will continue to pursue funding sources, and the federal government does have money to help with such expenses. But these are extraordinary circumstances. Concerns about future costs or the state workers’ compensation fund do not override the need to extend a cushion for those who are exposing themselves daily to possible disease.
“We do not want to be in a situation where people feel like they can’t risk their financial future by continuing to serve us,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, in supporting the bill.
The infection rate among first responders in Minnesota has so far been low, thankfully. Let’s hope it remains so. But now those who do fall ill will know that the state has their back.