First responders seek workers compensation pledge amid COVID-19 outbreak

Medical staff wearing safety gear stand outside near cars.
Medical staff wearing safety garments assist a driver at a new coronavirus drive-up test clinic on March 13 in Bloomington. Minnesota first responders, health care workers and other public employees want a change in state law that would guarantee them the opportunity to claim workers’ compensation if they contract COVID-19.
Jim Mone | AP file

Updated: 3:41 p.m.

As a St. Paul Fire Department captain, Chris Parsons knows that he and his colleagues risk contracting COVID-19 every day on the job. But right now, employees would need to prove their exposure was work-related in order to make a workers’ compensation claim.

Parsons is also president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union. He and others want to shift the burden of proof to the employers.

“It gives the employee a fighting chance when they’re going in and trying to get disability benefits,” Parsons said.

Legislation was introduced a few weeks ago to make the change, and House and Senate leaders considered it as part of the $330 million coronavirus relief package that lawmakers passed last week. But the measure fell by the wayside during negotiations.

“This should have been our highest priority. We need to take care of those that are willing to take care of us. We all know this is going to get worse before it gets better. We all know these folks are going to be exposed day in and day out,” Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said during last week’s Senate debate.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the issue was left out of the bill because the state’s Workers' Compensation Advisory Council, which represents both organized labor and business interests, was not in full agreement on the matter.

“The fact that they did not support this led me to believe that we shouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon, a member of the advisory council, said there were many unanswered questions about the original proposal, including the time frame and exactly who was covered. The business community tried to address those issues in an alternative plan put forward this week, Loon said.

“We want to do it the right way. We support first responders and health care providers. We want to make sure that they’re able to do their jobs and that they’re confident that they’ll be cared for if they become infected by COVID-19,” Loon said. “We urge the governor and legislators and those on the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council to proceed with a reasonable plan.”

The League of Minnesota Cities is also proposing an alternative plan that includes the creation of a separate state account to deal with COVID-19-related claims.

A bipartisan group of 81 legislators signed on to the letter to the governor this week urging him to issue an executive order to make the change to workers’ compensation. There’s also an online petition with more than 20,000 signatures seeking the same thing.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said negotiations continue behind the scenes on the issue, with hopes of an agreement for lawmakers to vote on in their next COVID-19 bill.

“We need our first responders more than we ever have before, and they need to have the peace of mind that we have their back,” Hortman said “If they can’t prove that they got COVID-19 on the job, but we know they’re at increased risk for getting it while on the job, we should assure them that we’re going to take care of them if they get COVID-19.”

Walz said Tuesday he supports the move but isn’t ready to issue an executive order yet.

“I am seriously considering moving to that,” he said. “I’ll give the Legislature time to see if they can get that fixed. But our folks, our first responders deserve that too. We’ll continue to fight for that. I’d like to have them get that done.”

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