ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Legislature on Tuesday, April 7, approved a proposal to allow emergency responders to draw workers' compensation benefits if they contract the coronavirus while on the job.

On a 130-4 vote in the House of Representatives and a unanimous vote in the Senate, passed the bill, which moves now to the governor's desk for his approval. Lawmakers spread out across the Capitol for the discussion, with some donning in surgical masks. And dozens for the first time phoned in votes from their offices in St. Paul, their vehicles parked in the capital city and their homes to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

The bill's passage came after the proposal hit a series of hurdles at the Capitol. Members of the Workers' Compensation Advisory Council, which represents labor and business, couldn't come to an agreement about how to administer the benefits. In particular, questions about how to pay for it slowed its progress.

But after stakeholders agreed to drop that piece, leaving unclear for now how the benefits would be funded, the plan gained a fast track in the Legislature.

Under current rules, emergency workers can be asked to prove that they developed an illness or injury while working before they can obtain partial salary and health care coverage under the state's workers' compensation program.

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And health care and public safety workers on the front lines of the pandemic said it would be difficult to prove they contracted the illness while at work, rather than at home or elsewhere, and in the meantime, they could potentially have to take unpaid sick time and pay for their treatment.

First responders, police officers, firefighters and health care workers, including home health care workers and child care workers providing care to first responders, would be presumed to have contracted COVID-19 while on the job and would be eligible for workers' compensation. The benefits could only be denied if an employer or insurer could prove the employee didn't contract the illness while working.

“These are the people that take care of us and we need to take care of them,” Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, said of the bipartisan bill, noting each of his siblings was a firefighter or first responder.

The plan would also require a report to be written detailing how many COVID-19 positive workers sought compensation. Lawmakers would be able to review that report next year. And the coverage would sunset next year without an extension from the Minnesota Legislature.

Legislative leaders said the handful of workers who had already applied for the workers' compensation benefits after contracting COVID-19 wouldn't be covered by the bill, but anticipated the change could help ensure several workers anticipated to become sickened as the disease's peak in the state arrives would have additional protections.

It's unclear how much the change will cost, but estimates projected a price tag of $320 million. In a worst-case scenario, legislators said the cost could be as high as $580 million, and lawmakers have not yet agreed on how to pay it.

"We do not want to be in a situation where people feel like they can't risk their financial future by continuing to serve us," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said. "We need to do this now and we will figure out the cost."

Local municipalities raised concerns Tuesday about the unclear funding source and said they worried the bulk of the price tag for covering first responders sickened by COVID-19 would fall to the cities, and in turn, taxpayers. The League of Minnesota Cities in a news release said the change could "lead to unprecedented stress on the state’s workers’ compensation system."

Republican lawmakers echoed those concerns and said the state would need a way to help cover the cost, whether through federal support funding or another way.

“It’s very much a concern to me how much all of this is going to cost at the end of the day," Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said.

First responders on Tuesday voiced their support for the legislation in news releases and on social media, saying it would give them additional protection if they get sick and peace of mind as they go to work during the pandemic.

“Everyday healthcare workers, firefighters and first responders are putting the good of our community ahead of our own fears," Kathy Meyer, a cook at the Crosby Regional Medical Center, said, "and it is great to know that if someone does catch this virus that we as Minnesotans have said that they will get taken care of.”

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