The current dynamics of the Minnesota Legislature mean all of the rules and practices that have governed the place for decades are being set aside for what is becoming a new normal.
As with nearly everything else in American society, you can thank COVID-19 for that.
Take the notion that the majority rules. In American legislatures, the party with more seats pretty much runs everything. It sets the agenda, it decides what passes and what withers, who gets the nicer offices and better parking spaces.
In the Minnesota House, that’s the DFL under House Speaker Melissa Hortman. In the state Senate, it’s the GOP under Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.
But when the COVID-19 crisis hit, the Legislature moved into recess, returning to St. Paul just twice since March 17, with the second time being on Tuesday. To have any legislation be considered in these hours-long sessions, bills must be part of the state’s response to the COVID crisis. And to suspend the normal rules of procedure to allow these quickie sessions requires a supermajority vote, which means that minority leaders suddenly have clout and bills must be nearly unanimous.
Such was the case with House File 4537, a bill passed Tuesday and signed by Gov. Tim Walz Wednesday that changes Minnesota’s workers’ compensation law to include a presumption that whenever a first responder, health care worker or others on the front line of the state’s coronavirus response gets COVID-19, they got it on the job.
How workers comp works in Minnesota
The workers compensation system in Minnesota is a no-fault insurance system for those who get injured on the job. It doesn’t require a finding of fault nor does it allow an employer to claim that the worker was negligent, and employers can either self-insure by covering costs themselves or buy insurance from an insurance company.
Under Minnesota’s system, benefits for a temporary disability are generally tw0-thirds of a worker’s gross pay. All “reasonable and necessary” medical costs are also to be paid through the system, though an injured worker could also be eligible for permanent partial disability payments and permanent total disability payments. The system also covers the cost of vocational rehabilitation or retraining.
Workers’ compensation had been a decades-long battleground between business and labor in Minnesota, as labor tries to protect and enhance benefits and business tries to control costs and police fraud.
Minnesota tried to mediate the fights by creating a commission with equal members from the two sides. While in the past the Legislature has enacted changes that didn’t have approval from the commission, it is rare. That’s why, two weeks ago Gazelka explained that he wanted the commission to work through the issue of COVID presumption before the Legislature acted.
How much — and who pays?
Changing Minnesota’s workers comp law has been controversial because it will be expensive, with cost estimates from $320 million to $596 million, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries. What’s more, the added cost would be borne not by all employers who pay into the system, but by the employers of the covered workers. As set up currently, cities and counties would pay more if their police and firefighters get COVID-19, as would private and nonprofit hospitals and other healthcare entities.
That provision caused the League of Minnesota Cities, which represents local governments throughout the state, to issue a statement saying it was “deeply concerned that legislation being considered this afternoon lacks a sustainable funding component and may lead to unprecedented stress on the state’s workers’ compensation system. That system is not designed to accommodate needs prompted by a historic pandemic, and identification of an alternative funding source is imperative.”
That issue is unresolved, although leaders pledged to find ways to share the burden, perhaps by using federal funds, state tax resources or by spreading the cost among all payers into the workers insurance system.
“We don’t know what mix of public or private resources will be brought to bear,” said Senate Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who said a task force might be convened to look at the problem.
The issue was brought to the Legislature by firefighters who saw their fellow firefighters fall ill in the Seattle area. It was on the table two weeks ago, but wasn’t ready for a vote at that point.
Covered employees are police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses (or other health care workers who have direct contact with patients), state correctional officers, local jail security officers, emergency medical technicians and workers who are providing day care to the children of health care workers and first responders, as covered by Gov. Tim Walz’s school-closure order.
Other workers not covered by the bill can still make a claim that they were infected on the job. But they must show a connection to their jobs, that their illness was “arising out of and in the course of employment.”
The bill passed the House 130-4 and the Senate 67-0. Because it only covers workers infected after the law takes effect, Walz signed the bill Wednesday morning.
Ramped up social distancing
The House and Senate both ramped up their social distancing protocols, even from the previous one-day session on March 17. In the House, only 21 of 134 members were physically in the chamber. Some, including Hortman and the rostrum staff, wore masks.
Other members were at their homes or spread out in meeting rooms around the 4th floor gallery level of the Capitol. To speak, those members were asked to use a microphone in the gallery and to enter the gallery one at a time. The news media covering the event live were even more spread out than before, with one each in entire sections of the gallery.
The roll call was complicated by the arrangement. House Clerk Patrick Murphy called the roll through a face mask. Those not in the chambers used phones to say “present” but preceded that with their location.
“Nash,” called Murphy.
“Nash, Waconia, present,” Rep. Jim Nash replied by phone.
Rep. Mike Freiberg tweeted that he reported in from his car in St. Paul so as to not expose staff or other members needlessly.
As a result, many legislators are participating from their cars somewhere in the city of St. Paul. I decided to do so from outside of my alma mater. Thank you to Speaker @melissahortman for prioritizing the safety of staff and the public. 2/2 pic.twitter.com/wM2u379VaK
— Mike Freiberg (@RepFreiberg) April 7, 2020
Today, we are meeting remotely to pass legislation to protect our health care workers. We need a minimum of 90 members in the ‘seat of government’. To minimize viral exposure to all, many of us are in our vehicles in the parking ramps. pic.twitter.com/1gB912v0qz
— Brad Tabke (@BradTabke) April 7, 2020
But several members weren’t at first able to call in through the system set up. That required leaders like Hortman and Winkler to call members on their cellphones and either repeat the response or hold up their phones on speakerphone. It took 25 minutes to declare that a quorum was present.
The Senate had used that procedure in March as well, with 15 members calling in their votes to leaders. The Senate looked the same on Tuesday with members spread out on the floor, in the gallery, in Capitol conference rooms or at home.
Masks, however, were not as widely used in the Senate.