No deal in sight on essential worker bonus pay

By: - September 27, 2021 8:12 am

Photo courtesy of Tyson Foods.

Lawmakers remain sharply divided over how to divvy up $250 million the Legislature set aside for bonus pay for essential workers, with the debate largely unchanged after weeks of public hearings and private discussions. 

Democrats want to include a larger pool of workers and increase the total pie; Republicans want to keep the total the same and pay more to a smaller pool of workers. 

Complicating the issue further: Vaccine politics and the 2022 election, in which two Senate Republicans are running for governor even as DFL Gov. Tim Walz is expected to seek reelection to a second term.

Walz has said he wants assurances that Senate Republicans won’t try to sack Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm during a special session to pay money to essential workers; newly elected Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, has said vaccine mandates and commissioner confirmations are “fair game.”

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said these ancillary issues are obstructing a deal on worker pay. “My read is that this just isn’t that important to them,” he said in a Reformer interview. 

State Sen. Karin Housely, R-St. Mary’s Point, continued to express optimism: “Everybody on the committee has the same goal and wants to get the money out quickly,” she said in a recent Reformer interview. 

A TV news report last week claimed the two sides had “tentatively agreed on some major issues.”

In fact, the debate has barely budged: Republicans are focused on long-term care workers, personal care attendants, health care workers and prison guards. 

State House Democrats want the Legislature to increase the $250 million allotted so that a larger pool of workers will be included — meatpackers and warehousers, janitors and transit workers, among many other people who couldn’t work from home during the pandemic — while still receiving a substantial sum.

“The resources are there. We continue to get federal money and we can use it,” said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, in a Reformer interview. “In the initial meetings, every member agreed this wasn’t enough to take care of our workers.” 

The TV report asserted meatpacking workers “would likely be left out.” 

Frazier said the exclusion of meatpacking workers would be unfair — and notable given the demographic makeup of the meatpacking industry. 

“You wonder what that’s about,” he said.  

As of April, WebMD reported, meatpacking nationwide was the source of 334,000 cases of COVID-19. According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than one-third of animal slaughtering and processing workers nationwide are foreign-born; 57% are Black or Latino. 

“It’s concerning to me they would specifically identify for no particular reason these workers to be excluded from these resources, even as those workers ensured our families would continue to be fed,” Frazier said. 

Housley, who is leading the Republican negotiating team, said there have been no final decisions about who is in or out. 

“We haven’t said that they’re out,” Housley said, referring to meatpacking workers. 

Insofar as there’s been any progress in the negotiations, lawmakers say, they now have better data on how many workers were ultimately forced to perform their duties in congregate settings where there was risk of infection. 

A coalition of worker groups led by labor unions and assisted by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development combed through reams of data to arrive at a better approximation of how many workers put themselves at risk: 667,000. 

If the pool and the total sum remain the same, each worker would receive $375. 

“Is that meaningful to someone who had a COVID patient die in their arms and everything that goes along with it?” Housley asked. 

If the Legislature hoped to give $1,000, the pool would be reduced to 250,000 workers. 

Housley said the working group has been asked to divide up $250 million and no more.  

“If there’s more money we would go back and meet again. But right now, this is it,” she said. 

Another potential solution: A two-tiered approach in which all workers receive something but those in higher risk fields get more. 

“I don’t want to make one group lesser but there were some people who took on more risk,” Housley said. 

Frazier said we only know who took on more risk in hindsight. 

“I find it incredibly difficult to make that delineation in terms of who deserves more money when they all carried that risk,” he said.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.