As health officials race to contain the spread of the coronavirus and prepare the public for quarantines, lawmakers from Minnesota to Washington are debating ways to protect millions of hourly wage earners who do not get paid sick time.
Gov. Tim Walz and some top DFL lawmakers say state action may be needed to prevent workers from missing paychecks. “In a health emergency, asking someone to worry about paying rent or child care or leaving work and keeping folks safe, that’s a tough one,” he said Tuesday. “So I think we need to have the conversation.”
President Donald Trump, who met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, also has pledged to pursue “very substantial relief” at the federal level, including a payroll tax cut and assistance for hourly workers who need to stay home. But both remedies have met resistance in Congress and at the state level.
The divisions have emerged as Walz signed legislation Tuesday earmarking an additional $21 million for the state’s coronavirus response. That brings the total available for the state’s public health response to $25 million as state and federal lawmakers grapple with the fast-spreading virus and provide economic relief for employers and workers in the weeks and months ahead.
One of the biggest questions is what if anything to do for employers and workers reeling from the ongoing economic fallout and the likelihood that more workers will face self-quarantine orders as the virus spreads. Public officials are already urging anyone who is sick to stay home from work and school. People who have been exposed to the virus are asked to limit contact with the others, with the length of isolation dependent on the extent of contact with an infected person. Authorities also are also asking the public to prepare for possible voluntary quarantines by stocking up on enough food, medicine and basic provisions to remain at home for up to 14 days, which is how long it can take for symptoms would show up after infection.
Advocates for requiring paid sick time point to studies estimating that more than 900,000 Minnesota workers, about 36% of the workforce, lack the benefit. Service industry and lower-wage workers are less likely to have access to sick time from employers.
State legislation to require paid sick time for all workers has faced opposition from the GOP-controlled Senate and large business groups, with critics raising concerns about a one-size-fits-all approach being too costly and burdensome for businesses. Walz, who supports strengthening sick time laws, said he thinks it’s a positive sign that the president is talking about the issue. But in the absence of broader support for the full measure, DFL lawmakers said they are looking into short-term fixes aimed at alleviating financial strain for those following social isolation guidance.
“If everyone had sick time paid, that would be a terrific response, unfortunately, that’s not the case,” said Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “Obviously there’s a broader, longer-term discussion about earned sick and safe time, but in the immediate time, for purposes of disease management, we have to make sure that we’re not undermining our public health by people being forced to come to work.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, acknowledged that self-quarantines for illness or potential exposure could become a “tough situation” for many. But he said while he’ll listen to concerns, he doesn’t think action on financial assistance or more sick time for such cases is needed at this point.
“There were some questions about what do we do when people are sick,” he said. “What do we do when people are sick with the flu? Right now, if that’s the case you typically have sick time from your work. You can use your days off. So I don’t think we really need to change anything for this.”
Gazelka said conversations between legislative leaders and the governor will continue on a number of potential responses, including the request to give the executive branch more power to declare a state of emergency. Another bill would establish a loan program to help health care providers that can’t afford preparation measures and increased patient loads. Lawmakers are also reviewing potential responses related to schools and colleges.
State officials confirmed a third presumptive case on Tuesday, shortly after the new funding bill was signed. The patient is an Anoka County resident in their 30s who was likely exposed to the virus by international travelers.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said officials are also preparing for the likelihood that more cases will surface. “As we expand the testing, we frankly to expect to find more cases,” she said. “As we’ve seen in other communities, while all the Minnesota cases so far have had a known source of exposure, it is quite likely that we will see community spread at some point.”
Walz praised state health officials and lawmakers for quick action in addressing the global virus. “Having resources to mitigate that, to get folks the treatment they need, to get folks self quarantined is the right thing to do,” Walz said.
Top administration and legislative officials are also working for contingency plans to ensure government continues to run if an outbreak keeps lawmakers and staff away from official duties, many of which must be performed in person and in public under the law. Some states, cities and organizations have canceled or postponed mass gatherings, including conferences, sporting events and university classes. Officials say such moves may be needed in Minnesota, including limiting public access to the State Capitol.
“We are not there in Minnesota, so we have not yet been advocating cancellation of large gatherings,” Malcolm said. “We are working with folks, letting folks know that is a possibility in the future.”
State leaders reiterated that the best thing Minnesotans can do for now is to follow advice from health leaders about limiting spread of viruses in general. “Stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said. “We can’t reiterate that enough.”
Star Tribune staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.