The Potluck

Minnesota lawmakers approve expansion of workers’ compensation for front line workers to include COVID-19

By: - April 7, 2020 1:15 pm

Healthcare workers screen a patient for COVID-19 at a drive-through coronavirus testing site on March 18 in Virginia. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation that will ensure first-responders, health care workers and child care workers are covered by workers’ compensation if they contract COVID-19.

The Minnesota House on Tuesday voted 130-4, while the Senate had a unanimous 67-0 vote.

Lawmakers — some donning face masks recently recommended by health officials — gathered amid a statewide stay-home order to take up the emergency legislation. It is the latest COVID-19 measure to come before the Minnesota Legislature, which recently approved a $330 million package, to shore up the state’s ability to weather the pandemic. 

Like then, lawmakers adhered to social distancing guidelines, leaving the House chamber sparsely populated, with only some lawmakers attending the vote in person. Others called into the extraordinary proceedings by telephone, posting pictures on social media from their cars showing how they participated.  In the Senate, legislative leaders reported the votes of some of their members who were participating remotely. 

“We are living in dangerous and unprecedented times,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud. “There are some Minnesotans who can’t do their jobs from home… (and) continue to do their jobs out on the front lines of this pandemic.”

Underscoring how life during COVID-19 has changed, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, held a press conference ahead of the vote by Zoom video conference. 

“People on the front lines of the pandemic need to have the support of all us, that’s what this workers’ compensation bill is all about,” Winkler said. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, called it an important bill that had bipartisan support. As the Legislature continues working, GOP and DFL leaders have said they will be prioritizing legislation related to the state’s pandemic response and other bills with common ground.

“The things we do for COVID-19, we do as fast as we can,” Gazelka said.

The full extent of the package’s cost is unclear, with a range of $320 million up to $580 million, Winkler said during brief debate on the legislation. He suggested those projections will likely be wrong, but said he hopes a task force can come together to identify a sustainable funding source. 

Already, some cities are concerned about the cost, according to a statement issued by the League of Minnesota Cities, which represents more than 800 cities throughout Minnesota.

“The League of Minnesota Cities is deeply concerned that legislation being considered this afternoon lacks a sustainable funding component and may lead to unprecedented stress on the state’s workers’ compensation system,” the statement said. “That system is not designed to accommodate needs prompted by a historic pandemic, and identification of an alternative funding source is imperative.”

The statement also added: “As it now stands, local governments will have no choice but to pass along these costs to property taxpayers at a time when they can least afford it.”

The bill effectively moves the burden to employers to prove how a worker contracted COVID-19 during the current pandemic. Otherwise, the worker is presumed to have contracted the virus while working. It requires workers to receive either laboratory confirmation or a diagnosis from a doctor or medical professional that they have COVID-19. 

The changes made by the bill are expected to sunset in May 2021.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.