Lawmakers pass workers’ compensation bill — with cost unresolved

Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman wears a face mask
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman wears a face mask at her desk as lawmakers meet on Tuesday in St. Paul to pass a bill to assure that first responders and medical workers will qualify for workers' compensation if they get sick with COVID-19 and won't have to prove they contracted the disease on the job.
Jim Mone | AP

Minnesota lawmakers have made a change in the state workers’ compensation law that will make it easier for first responders, health care workers and others to make a claim if they contract COVID-19.

The House passed the measure 130-4 Tuesday. The Senate vote was 67-0.

Under the change, coronavirus exposure would be presumed to have occurred on the job, and workers would no longer need to prove the circumstances in order to make a claim. They would, however, need to provide a positive test result or a doctor’s note.

“These are the people that take care of us, and we need to take care of them,” said Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville.

Those covered by the legislation include licensed peace officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, health care workers, correctional officers, security counselors and emergency medical technicians.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said those workers are at a higher risk of exposure.

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“They’re putting themselves on the line out there,” Hortman said. “They risk their own safety for us day in and day out. This was a really important step for us to take.”

Hortman presided over the House debate wearing a face mask. House staffers and some other lawmakers were also wearing masks to try to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

Hortman called the bill a first step. She said more work is needed to shore up the workers’ compensation system and pay for the expected increase in claims. The estimated additional costs run between $320 million and $580 million.

“Whether we pay for it with federal dollars, whether we pay for it with state tax dollars or whether we socialize the cost across the entire workers’ compensation system, we owe a duty to these folks, and we will find a way to pay for it,” she said.

Social distancing and substitute meeting areas for lawmakers in effect.
Social distancing is in effect in the Minnesota House as legislators meet on Tuesday.
Jim Mone | AP

Still, concerns about the cost came up during the House debate. Rep Peggy Scott, R-Andover, voted for the bill but urged her colleagues to be fiscally responsible as they head toward a likely budget deficit.

“It’s very much a concern to me what all of this is going to cost at the end of the day,” Scott said. “We have a lot of things that we have to budget in the next little while here.”

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the cost of the bill will be significant. He favors the creation of a task force to work on the issue.

“We don’t know the course of this disease,” Winkler said. “We do not how many will be affected or how many lives will be lost or affected by this in Minnesota. But we do know we have the resources in this state to deal with it as best we possibly can.”