Minnesota lawmakers can't seem to agree on how to give away $250 million of federal funding to frontline workers.
The Frontline Worker Pay Working Group, which is made up of three DFL lawmakers, three Republican lawmakers and three Gov. Tim Walz appointees, has been meeting in recent weeks to come up with a plan to disburse $250 million in direct support from federal funds to those on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group was supposed to submit its recommendations on who would get the pandemic pay bonuses to the Minnesota Legislature by Sept. 6.
That didn't happen because they can't agree on who should get a cut of the money. Some group members support giving less money to more people while others want to give more money to fewer people.
Here's a breakdown of what's going on:
More money for fewer workers
Republicans, who on Thursday — weeks after the deadline —unveiled their proposal on how to distribute the pandemic bonus pay, want the pool of frontline workers to be limited to those who took the highest sustained COVID-19 risk during the pandemic: nurses, long-term care workers, hospice staff, first responders, and corrections officers.
Their proposal would amount to $1,200 per person, with bonus checks for about 200,000 people. To be eligible, the workers couldn't have worked from home, they had to receive less than one month of unemployment, and worked a minimum of 1,200 hours between March and December 2020 (about 30 hours a week).
“We’ve said from the beginning, these bonuses need to be an amount that is meaningful, prioritized for those who took the most risk, and recognizes the workers who kept us safe,” working group co-chair Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said in a statement.
"We only have $250 million to work with, but it’s enough to prioritize the healthcare workers who donned PPE and cared for COVID positive patients. It’s enough to recognize our first responders who doubled down on an already risky job when the work didn’t allow distancing or PPE. We can recognize the inspiring work of hospice staff who were there for our loved ones when we were not allowed to be.”
Less money for more workers
Meanwhile, Democrats are in favor of expanding the pool of eligible essential workers to those who helped keep society going during the pandemic and couldn't work from home, including meatpacking plant workers, grocery workers, janitorial staff, and daycare workers. This would be in addition to those mentioned in the GOP's plan.
Democrats' proposal, which they presented weeks ago, would open an application process for essential workers directly exposed to COVID. Workers would get a minimum of $375 per worker, benefitting more than 600,000 people who worked on the frontlines during the pandemic.
Democrats and many frontline workers criticized the Republicans' plan on Thursday, saying it unfairly excludes hundreds of thousands of people.
The Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents nurses who would get more money with the Republicans plan, is asking lawmakers to come up with a plan that doesn't exclude other workers who were also at risk during the pandemic.
“Excluding any frontline workers is a slap in the face to someone who put their life at risk for our communities,” said Deb Tauer, president of the Minnesota Licensed Practical Nurse Association (MLPNA), in a statement. “Without the school workers who watched our children, many of our nurses would have had to stay home when schools went to remote learning. Without the food service workers and store clerks, we would have struggled to keep our families healthy. It was the sacrifices of all frontline workers that gave us the ability to show up and care for our communities.”
While the DFL's plan would amount to far less per worker than the Republican's plan, it's better than getting nothing, frontline workers said, noting the $375 payment would be meaningful to low-income workers, especially those who had to take unpaid time off during the pandemic.
The working group is expected to meet again early this month. If they can reach a deal, Gov. Tim Walz said he'd call a special session of the Minnesota Legislature so lawmakers can vote on the proposed legislation that would send direct payments to frontline workers.
Even if the working group agrees on a plan, something unrelated could hold up the pandemic bonus pay: Senate Republicans have threatened to hold a confirmation vote on Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm — they could move to remove her from Walz's cabinet, marking the third cabinet official to be ousted amid the Walz administration's handling of the pandemic (a fourth commissioner resigned ahead of a planned vote on her confirmation).
But Walz has said he won't call a special session if a vote on Malcolm is on the agenda.