ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, March 31, said he'll greenlight state workers' compensation for emergency responders who contract the coronavirus while on the job if lawmakers aren't willing to tackle the issue.
The governor made the comment after firefighters, police officers, nurses, corrections workers and others working in public health last week said they would remain on the hook for the cost of their health care and sick leave if they contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, while on the front lines.
Technically, the workers are eligible for the benefits now but they could be asked to prove to the state that they got sick while at work rather than somewhere else. And emergency workers said they should be able to bypass that process and be presumed to be eligible for benefits if they contract COVID-19.
The Minnesota Legislature on Thursday passed a $330 million COVID-19 response bill that didn't include the measure. And closed conversations about the next phase of support have yet to forge a compromise. Asked whether he would approve the policy by executive order, Walz said he plans to keep the option open.
"I am seriously considering moving on that," Walz told reporters on a telephone conference. "Our first responders deserve that."
Lawmakers are still in closed discussions about how to ensure emergency responders get benefits if they're sickened on the job. And Senate Republicans, who control the majority in that chamber, said they want the Workers' Compensation Advisory Council to sign off on a plan before they pass it.
Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, is one of the lawmakers on a working group crafting the legislation and he urged the governor not to "end-run" the council by issuing an executive order.
"I would like to see the Legislature weigh in on it and particularly that it comes out of the council as an agreement between our business and labor partners," Utke said. "I wouldn’t want to end-run the council."
Concerns about the council's opinion on the proposal kept it out of a $330 million COVID-19 response bill approved last week. Walz signed the aid package into law over the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said it still remained a priority for his caucus moving forward. And House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, on Tuesday said she's hopeful lawmakers and labor and business leaders could find a middle ground that would allow lawmakers to return to the Capitol and pass the legislation.
"I think there's a lot of hope that we could be getting closer there," Hortman said, noting that conversations around the bill picked up in the days after legislators left St. Paul.
Hortman said if negotiations fail, she would support Walz in issuing an executive order to cover the providers.
"I think it’s important that we act absolutely as soon as we can so we can show that we have their back," she said.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return to St. Paul on April 14 but could call themselves back sooner if members of the divided government reach an agreement.
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