A Capitol police officer watches the activity from outside the chambers as The Wisconsin Assembly meets Tuesday. (RICK WOOD/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL)
A Capitol police officer watches the activity from outside the chambers as The Wisconsin Assembly meets Tuesday. (RICK WOOD/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL)

Workers comp. guidelines to change for first responders due to Vos’ amendment.

The COVID-19 relief bill is on its way to the Senate, after the Assembly passed the package Tuesday in an extraordinary session with half the members attending online because of the virus. 

With roughly half the Assembly members attending in person, the process was a bit more drawn out than usual, as roll call required each individual member to be called out by name and given time to answer by unmuting their computers.

Only a handful of members wore face masks but many of the staffers did have them on. As the session began, there were 3,555 people who have tested positive for the virus and 170 deaths in Wisconsin. 

“State government needs to step up and play its role,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. “While our politics are dysfunctional and at times broken, the public is looking to us to lead. They are looking for leadership and not politics.”

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, wears a mask as members meet to vote on a bill. Hintz is the only Democrat who attended the session in person. (RICK WOOD/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL)

The bill passed out of the Assembly was largely what was agreed upon by the leaders of both parties. 

It waived the one-week waiting period for those who apply for unemployment insurance dating back to March 12 and extending through Feb. 7, 2021. 

As of Tuesday, 380,000 Wisconsin workers had applied for unemployment insurance compared to 27,000 a year ago at this time, said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

“Most of these people have never had to apply for unemployment insurance before,” Vos said. 

A last-minute change to the COVID-19 Relief bill introduced by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is igniting a storm of criticism from first responders who say Republicans are turning their backs on them as they are on the frontlines fighting the spread of a pandemic.

In a series of tweets Tuesday evening, Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest law enforcement group, ripped into Assembly Republicans for changing language in the bill that now requires them to prove they were exposed to someone who was positive for COVID-19 while working.

This places a large burden of proof on first responders in order to qualify for workers compensation.

“A special THANKS FOR NOTHING to @WIAssemblyGOP and @SpeakerVos for approving a relief package today that effectively provides ZERO RELIEF to first responders and other critical workers risking their health during this pandemic,” said Palmer in a tweet.

“How else do you explain a measure creating a worker’s comp “presumption” that would require first responders to provide a medical COVID-19 diagnosis/test (which many officers still can’t get) AND prove that they were exposed to other confirmed cases in the course of their jobs?” added Palm.

Mahlon Mitchell, state president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, echoed Palmer’s thoughts.

“Not much help for first responders,” tweeted Mitchell. “Actually Zero.” 

The relief bill, which includes several components that require waivers in order for the state to draw down millions of dollars in federal funds, must pass by  Friday. 

The bill reintroduces a provision that would lower the number of instructional teaching required to be licensed as a certified nursing assistant from 120 to 75 hours, which is in line with federal standards. Republicans approved this idea in the session that ended in March but it was subsequently vetoed by Evers

The inclusion of that provision and a last-minute amendment by Vos were portions HIntz felt were not necessary to include in the relief bill.

“I’m disappointed they had changes – broader than technical changes – minutes before coming to the floor,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.

He added, “I think that salted part of what is happening here today.”

A waiver to change some Medicaid-related policies, including one that requires childless adults in Wisconsin to pay a premium for their BadgerCare insurance, was part of the package, allowing the state to qualify for $150 million in federal Medicaid funding each quarter.

To provide greater flexibility in reassigning workers to state agencies that may be more involved in responding to the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, the bill authorizes Joel Brennan, secretary of the state Department of Administration, to transfer employees from agency to agency. 

Hintz and Vos were the only members of the Assembly to speak prior to a vote being taken on the bill. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos explains proposed legislation as the legislature meets to vote on a bill that would give the unemployed more benefits, provide insurance protections for those infected with coronavirus and shield healthcare providers from liability. (RICK WOOD/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL)

Both agreed concessions had been made by both sides in an effort to get aid to the people of the state. 

“I’m pleased with the near unanimous vote on the Coronavirus Response Bill. There was a collaborative effort in crafting the legislation, using input from Democrats, Republicans, workers, business owners, healthcare providers and constituents,” said Vos in a statement. “The result was a bill that bolsters the state’s response to the public health emergency. This vote proves that our state can come together during these unprecedented times.”

On Monday, Gov. Tony Evers told reporters it would likely require more than one relief bill to provide enough support to farmers and small business owners across the state. Hintz echoed that thought Tuesday on the Assembly floor. 

“I would hope this moment calls for something bigger,” Hintz said. “And if we need to act again, we will.”