First responders and emergency workers are urging Minnesota lawmakers to ease their ability to obtain workers’ compensation should they contract COVID-19.
A bill before lawmakers would encompass firefighters, paramedics, police, nurses, doctors and people providing child care to emergency responders, among several others whose jobs put them at particular risk of contracting the disease that had infected 689 and killed 17 Minnesotans as of Wednesday.
“It’s very important, because first responders, nurses, other folks that we have included in this bill, we are going to be working directly with populations that are susceptible to COVID-19, or, already have COVID-19,” said St. Paul fire Capt. Chris Parsons, who spearheaded the effort. “We are going to be put at a greater risk than the general public [for] contracting this illness.”
The measure would smooth an employee’s path toward obtaining workers’ compensation for medical expenses and other costs related to a COVID-19 infection by shifting the burden of proof from the employee to the employer.
Without the bill, employees would have to prove to employers that they contracted the disease from a specific patient while on the job. Under the bill, an infection would be presumed to be work-related, and employers seeking to deny workers’ compensation would have to disprove that employees contracted the disease while working.
Parsons, president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union, said it would be difficult for emergency workers to pinpoint the exact moment of infection given the number of people they come in contact with.
“We would have to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that we contracted it from a patient,” he said about the usual workers’ compensation standards. “That’s going to be impossible for us.”
Parsons first wrote Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers in mid-March pleading with them to enact workers’ compensation protections for emergency workers after hearing firsthand from a firefighter from Washington state, where one-third of a fire department was quarantined after exposure.
There are about 2,000 professional firefighters and 20,000 volunteer, on-call firefighters working in just under 800 fire departments across Minnesota.
While he has not heard of firefighters in Minnesota testing positive for COVID-19, Parsons said some firefighters in St. Paul, Minneapolis and other departments have been or are being quarantined.
“We’re still early in this thing,” Parsons said. “Imagine where this is going to be in two weeks.”
Two St. Paul police officers are now off work with confirmed cases of the virus, marking the first known law enforcement officers in the state to contract it, along with a Department of Corrections officer. So far, no Minneapolis police officers have tested positive.
Lawmakers sent Walz a letter this week urging him to issue an executive order to create a “workers’ comp presumption” for first responders. He kicked it back to legislators, who did not roll it into a $330 million emergency coronavirus aid package passed last Thursday.
Walz said earlier this week that the workplace injury designation was blocked by the Republican-majority Senate.
“They didn’t move on this,” Walz said. “They seem to have a different interpretation. Especially the firefighters and first responders — they want this done. So yes, I am seriously considering moving on that. I’ll give the Legislature time to try and see if they can get that fixed. But our folks, our first responders, deserve that.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it will make $850 million available to help public safety agencies address the pandemic, which can be used to pay personnel and overtime costs, cover protective equipment and supplies and address correctional inmates’ medical needs, among other uses.
Staff writers Jessie Van Berkel and Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.