Minnesota lawmakers are set to return to the State Capitol on Tuesday to vote on legislation that would expand workers’ compensation eligibility for police, health workers and other first responders who contract COVID-19.
Front-line workers, including firefighters, health care providers, paramedics and police, could qualify for benefits once they receive a positive COVID-19 lab test or diagnosis. Current law mandates workers prove that they contracted the virus on the job to obtain benefits. The bill creates a presumption that any coronavirus exposure was work-related, shifting the responsibility to employers to prove that an infection happened elsewhere.
Legislative leaders reached an agreement following weeks of lobbying from first responders and what has been described as round-the-clock negotiations involving legislators, business and labor groups. Leaders in both chambers said they expect the bill to pass, even as lingering questions remained Monday about how to pay for a potential increase in new claims.
“This is a win for firefighters, paramedics, nurses, police officers, [correctional officers], EMTs, healthcare workers & child care providers who’re risking their health to protect Minnesotans during this pandemic,” tweeted Rep. Dan Wolgamott, D-St. Cloud, who is co-sponsoring the legislation. “I’m grateful these heroes & their families will get the economic security they deserve!”
Negotiations continued Monday on the financial elements of the package, fueled by cost concerns for local governments that employ tens of thousands of first responders. The draft legislation, released Sunday, does not address a funding mechanism to help cover such claims. Gary Carlson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said local governments “want to make sure [workers’] needs are addressed, but we need to do it in a way that [makes] financial sense.”
“Our local governments, we don’t have the ability in some of our communities to absorb huge increase in costs,” he said.
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, raised the issue at a Senate working group meeting Monday, asking if federal funding to address the pandemic could be used to pay for increased workers’ compenation expenses. A state fiscal analyst told the lawmakers that question remains unresolved.
In addition to covering doctors and nurses who work with COVID-19 patients, the bill would extend to firefighters, paramedics, police, long-term care workers, home health workers, correctional officers and people providing child care to emergency responders.
A similar effort to expand workers’ compensation protections to emergency workers as part of a $330 million COVID-19 response package fell short in March following opposition from some business groups and Senate Republicans. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he wanted any changes to the law to have full support from the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council, which is made up of representatives from both business and labor. Lawmakers said Monday that language to change the presumption standard now has backing from both sides. Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, applauded the groups for coming together to provide safeguards for workers.
“We hope it’s not needed, but it is vitally important for these heroes on the front lines to know that this policy is in place to help protect their health and safety during this difficult and uncertain time,” he said.
Tuesday’s vote will mark the second time legislators will return to St. Paul since leaders announced a temporary hiatus on most in-person meetings to prevent the virus’ spread. Lawmakers are expected to again follow new social distancing protocols, with some members voting from viewing galleries, conference rooms or remotely by phone.