GOP Virus Relief Package Fails First Responders

April 20, 2020

MADISON – Amended only minutes before it was to receive a vote in the State Assembly last week, a package of measures by Republican lawmakers to help those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic failed to include any protections whatsoever for Wisconsin’s first responders. Up against the prospect of the state losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid if it didn’t act by last week’s deadline, Gov. Tony Evers had no choice but to begrudgingly sign the legislative relief package into law.

Since the current public health crisis began, the WPPA has been leading numerous initiatives to protect law enforcement officers and the families that depend upon them. One such effort centered on changing the state’s worker’s compensation laws to make it easier for first responders to receive assistance in the event they contract COVID-19. Due to the continuing shortage of personal protective equipment, inadequate testing resources, and the fact that an individual can contract the virus and infect others for up to two weeks before they show any symptoms, the WPPA advocated to remove the unreasonable burden that law enforcement officers and others prove that they contracted COVID-19 in the course of their employment in order to be eligible for worker’s compensation benefits.

As originally proposed by the Republican-controlled legislature, the coronavirus relief bill would have accomplished that. Though much narrower than a recent proposal on the issue by Gov. Evers, the Republican bill nonetheless represented an improvement—albeit a minor one.

Unfortunately, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) introduced a controversial last-minute amendment to force first responders to prove that they were exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19. Under the Vos Amendment, the law governing worker’s compensation benefits would “presume” that first responders contracted COVID-19 in the course of their employment so long as they can prove it.

Obviously, a presumption that you have to prove isn’t a presumption at all. 

While the Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly attempted to defeat the Vos Amendment, their effort to do so was voted down by the Republican majority on a party-line vote. As a result, the Vos Amendment gutted any potential benefit for the dedicated first responders working at great risk to keep our communities safe.

As it now stands, before a first responder can receive worker’s compensation benefits associated with injuries related to COVID-19, they will have to obtain a specific diagnosis by a physician or a positive COVID-19 test. Additionally, first responders will have to prove that they were exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19, which the Wisconsin Department of Health says will be impossible due to HIPAA restrictions and the two-week dormancy period associated with the disease. Lastly, the presumption would apply to injuries incurred from March 12, when Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency, until 30 days after the emergency period ends. Under state law, only the legislature can extend the governor’s public health emergency declaration, which is set to expire in mid-May. As such, law enforcement officers and other first responders will only have the second week of June to apply for benefits. Officers that sustain the disease after that time will not be eligible for any assistance at all.

Though Gov. Evers was forced to sign the bill into law, he has publicly called on lawmakers to pass new legislation to protect first responders uniquely impacted by COVID-19; Attorney General Josh Kaul has done the same. Unlike in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois have all established genuine presumption laws for first responders that contract COVID-19. For its part, the WPPA has been an outspoken critic of the legislature’s ill-conceived actions and the fact that the coronavirus relief package effectively provided zero relief to Wisconsin’s first responders, who, unlike the elected officials that voted for it, don’t have the luxury of practicing social distancing or performing their duties virtually.

For more information, please feel free to contact WPPA Executive Director Jim Palmer at palmer@wppa.com.