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Minnesota Legislature OKs protection for front-line workers

Minnesota's workers compensation laws normally require an employee to prove they got sick or were injured on the job.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota's coronavirus infection count surpassed 1,000 Tuesday, as lawmakers paid tribute to first responders and health care workers on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus by passing legislation to ensure they all qualify for workers compensation if they catch it.

The House passed the bill 130-4 and sent it to the Senate, which sent it to Gov. Tim Walz on a unanimous 67-0 vote. The governor told reporters he expected to sign the bill Tuesday night. He also said he plans on Wednesday to announce an extension of his state-at-home order with some new refinements, though he gave few details.

In a surreal scene, the House chamber was almost empty except for a handful of lawmakers and staffers. Some wore masks and they sat far apart to ensure social distancing. Most representatives joined by phone, including some who drove to St. Paul and participated from their cars to ensure that the House met the constitutionally required quorum of 90 "at the seat of government" — meaning in the capital city. Few senators worse masks, but the chamber was similarly close to empty, with most members voting remotely.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 83 new cases Tuesday, taking the state's total to 1,069, and it reported four new deaths, for a total of 34. The department said 120 patients were hospitalized as of Tuesday, an increase of five, while 64 were in intensive care, up seven from Monday.

Health officials said 549 patients have recovered and no longer need to be isolated, but have cautioned that the true number of infections is likely much higher because not everyone qualifies for testing.

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Minnesota's workers compensation laws normally require an employee to prove they got sick or were injured on the job. The legislation changes that requirement for first responders and health care workers, as well as child care workers who serve the families of front-line employees.

"It will be very difficult for some of our first responders to be able to establish exactly how they got COVID-19, but we know they're at much higher risk for contracting this disease because of the work that they're doing for us," Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said on a conference call with reporters. "They are putting themselves on the line out there."

Hortman and the Democratic governor acknowledged that changing the rules is likely to impose new costs on the workers compensation system and that they have yet to figure how how they'll pay for it. They're hoping to use some of the $2.1 billion that Minnesota is getting in federal stimulus money to cover part of the new costs.

Walz said in his daily conference call with reporters that his extended stay-at-home order will reflect new data and modeling on how the outbreak is likely to develop in Minnesota, and how the surge in new cases has not been accelerating as much as once feared — a sign that social distancing is working. He said one goal would be to get people working again as the situation permits.

"If there is any possibility at all of getting you back into that workforce, without increasing the chance of spread or tapping out our health care system, that is what our intent is to do," Walz said.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters he'd like to see Walz lift the order altogether so more people can get back to work, or perhaps require that only certain businesses remain closed. 

"Minnesotans get that we have to have social distancing ... but I think we're ready. I think we have enough resources in place," Gazelka said.

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