The Minnesota State Capitol building in downtown Saint Paul, with snow on the ground during autumn. Photo by Tony Webster.
A Minnesota House committee approved on Monday a bill to extend for another year a law that says frontline health care workers and first responders will be presumed eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they test positive for COVID-19.
Minnesota’s existing COVID-19 presumption law expired Dec. 31, 2021. The bill from Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, would extend it through May 2023, as well as make the policy effective retroactively beginning Jan. 1, 2022.
The House labor committee approved the bill 8-5 along party lines. Republicans argued the proposal should have been tabled, citing opposition from the state labor commissioner and ongoing work by a council tasked with making recommendations for workers’ compensation policy.
“For the past month, we have been asking over 183,000 of our public safety, health care and child care workers to serve our communities on the frontlines of this pandemic without any guarantee they would receive compensation if they contract COVID-19,” Wolgamott told committee members. “I find this unacceptable.”
More than 20,000 workers have received benefits under the presumption since it was enacted in April 2020, Wolgamott said. Workers covered by the policy — including firefighters, police officers, paradmics, health care workers and some child care providers — aren’t required to prove they caught the virus at work to have their claim accepted.
Wolgamott’s proposal was met with strong criticism by some committee members and testifiers who said they supported the bill’s goal but had some reservations about the process.
Roslyn Robertson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, urged lawmakers to wait until the state’s Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council finalizes its policy recommendations for the Legislature. State law requires the council — which is made up of business leaders, labor representatives and lawmakers — to weigh in on any proposed changes to workers’ compensation policy.
The council hasn’t reached a consensus about a potential presumption extension yet, Robertson said, but they’re scheduled to revisit the discussion during a meeting Tuesday. Tuesday is also the deadline for the council to deliver its recommendations to the Legislature.
“I’m confident that an agreement will be reached,” Robertson said. “I would ask the committee to respect the integrity of the council and allow the council to complete its business before advancing any other policy.”
Wolgamott said he’s committed to working with the council. When he drafted the bill, Wolgamott said, he was told the council wasn’t meeting again until Feb. 9, so he moved forward with the proposal.
Workers’ compensation insurers have opposed similar COVID-19 presumption policies across the country. Aaron Cocking, president and CEO of the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, spoke out against the extension bill, telling the committee he’s concerned that the retroactivity provision wouldn’t stand up in court.
He also said the COVID-19 presumption made sense early in the pandemic, when little was known about the virus’s transmission. We know now that many infections are caused by community spread, Cocking said, comparing the prevalence of COVID-19 to the cold or flu.
“(COVID-19) has become so common that everybody is at risk of getting it,” Cocking said. “Workers’ compensation is not and should not and was never intended to replace health insurance.”
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