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Why have Minnesota’s legislators left our state’s first responders high and dry?

As Minnesotans battle the Coronavirus, the state’s first responders have been in the front line. In some cases, government has been working against them; I wrote last week about the federal regulatory regime for producing N95 masks which is seeing nurses being advised to wear scarves and bandanas to treat patients.

Sadly, it seems that state government might be letting them down, too. As the Rochester Post Bulletin reported last week:

Firefighters, police officers, nurses, corrections workers and others working in public health 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. And they turned their focus to Gov. Tim Walz, asking him to issue an executive order covering them under the workers’ compensation program.

State lawmakers were set to meet later Thursday to take up a large emergency response bill, which was expected to include as much as $356 million in additional supports for child care providers, small businesses, homeless shelters, food banks and needy families. But the emergency workers said their request had been knocked out in secret negotiations after four legislative leaders failed to agree it was needed.

“After what happened yesterday in the dark of night – I’m mad, I feel let down, I feel betrayed,” Minnesota Professional Firefighters President Chris Parsons said. “First responders have been thrown into this battle totally undefended. We’re being exposed, we’re being quarantined, it’s just a matter of time before we are sickened. First responders don’t have the option to work from home.”

Why was the proposal dumped?

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said the measure was removed from a larger response bill because not all four legislative leaders agreed to it. He said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, fought to defend it but Republican leaders opposed it. The meetings between legislative leaders were private and recordings weren’t made available to the public as of Thursday morning.

But there seems to be more to it than this:

The measure had bipartisan support and its authors, a Senate Republican and House Democrat, on Thursday said they were disappointed to see it dropped from the final response bill. Both said their respective caucuses, which hold control in the Legislature, viewed it as a priority and would continue working to get the plan approved.

The sticking point seems to be that proposals to modify the Workers’ Compensation program have traditionally been vetted by the Workers Compensation Advisory Council (WCAC), which is a statutory council that is charged with analyzing and make recommendations on changes to Workers’ Compensation law. The Council consists of representative from both business and labor and any proposed changes need to be supported by a majority of both business and labor members. At this point, the WCAC has not come to agreement on this proposal, but we hear that it members are working hard to get this resolved. Lets hope they do – Minnesota’s first responders deserve no less.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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