The Potluck

GOP proposal for pandemic pay limits bonuses to smaller pool of essential workers, including nurses

By: - September 30, 2021 3:25 pm

Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, speaks with reporters on Sep. 30, 2021. She is joined by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, left, and state Rep. Anne New Brindley, R-North Branch. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

GOP legislative leaders on Thursday unveiled their proposal to distribute $250 million in pandemic bonus pay to nurses, first responders, correctional officers, long-term care workers and hospice providers. 

A bipartisan panel of lawmakers have met in recent weeks to hash out which essential workers would be eligible for checks. Republicans favor limiting the pool of eligible workers to those who “sustained an intimate exposure to COVID-19,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater.

If approved, the legislation would provide a $1,200 bonus and set requirements for such workers, that include those who could not work from home and worked at least 1,200 hours between March and December 2020.

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said the proposal leaves out too many workers: “This most recent public announcement by the GOP is nothing more than political posturing. It does nothing to honor our frontline workers,” he said in a statement Thursday. 

Democratic legislators on the panel have favored a broader base of essential workers that would include meatpacking plant workers, janitorial staff and daycare workers, among others. 

The panel missed a previous deadline to reach an agreement. If lawmakers can reach a deal, DFL Gov. Tim Walz is prepared to call lawmakers back to St. Paul for a special session to pass the compromise legislation. 

But the gridlocked issue has grown even more politically complex in recent weeks. Some Senate Republicans say they want a confirmation vote during a special session on Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, moving to potentially oust a Walz cabinet official for the third time in the past year or so. 

Walz and DFL leaders say they won’t agree to a special session agenda that includes a confirmation vote on Malcolm.

Frazier said the GOP’s confirmation politics make their proposal even worse by “threatening to remove a leader that has worked tirelessly to keep Minnesotans safe during this public health crisis,” he said in the statement. 

The two Senate Republicans on the panel, Housley and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, did not indicate whether a confirmation vote should take place. But Housley suggested it is an issue that should stay “separate” from the issue of pandemic bonus pay. 

Some workers, including nurses, pushed back against the GOP plan, telling reporters that all kinds of essential workers — including food service workers and others who are undocumented immigrants — faced health risks. 

“There was a whole range of people who worked through this pandemic and also assumed risk,” said Rachel Hanneman, a nurse who worked in the COVID-19 unit at the now-shuttered Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. 

Janitor Troy Browman was more pointed. 

“I’m appalled at the decision made,” he said, referring to the GOP plan. “When Gov. Walz (at the beginning of the pandemic) labeled us as essential workers, he didn’t give you a classification.” 

He added: “We all went out there and sacrificed our lives.”

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.