The Potluck

Minnesota lawmakers begin deliberating how to distribute $250 million to frontline workers

By: - July 28, 2021 5:46 pm

Michele Catinella, a nurse practitioner at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community receives a Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine from Carmen Pi, a Registered Nurse with American Medical Response on Dec. 16, 2020 in Pompano Beach, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

A small working group of Minnesota lawmakers and cabinet members on Wednesday began deliberating how to divvy up $250 million for bonuses for the hundreds of thousands of frontline workers who risked exposure to keep essential services running during the pandemic.

The group — made up of three representatives, three senators and three commissioners — heard testimony from some 30 essential workers including nurses, child care workers, food service workers, janitors and personal care aides, illustrating the challenge of distributing even a sum as large as a quarter-billion dollars among so many people.

“This is a good start. It is not enough,” said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope. “There’s $250 million. If we divided it by all those workers, it would be a very small number and it would be insulting to do that. So we have to determine how we’re going to do this in an equitable way.”

In the final days of budget negotiations in June, state lawmakers agreed to spend a quarter-billion dollars on bonuses for frontline essential workers with the money coming either from the state’s general fund or some of the $2.8 billion the state received from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Lawmakers decided to put a bipartisan working group in charge of recommending who is eligible, with the only requirements being that they include long-term care workers and that the working group consider the increased financial burden and increased risk of virus exposure of certain jobs.

The testimony provided a stark reminder of the suffering frontline workers continue to witness and endure.

“The numbers are back up again, so it’s not over,” said Mary Turner, a COVID-19 ICU nurse and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, the union representing 80% of the state’s nurses.

She described the early weeks of the pandemic when nurses were forced to reuse the same N-95 masks for 10 shifts in a row as colleagues became infected and sick with the virus. And through tears she told of staying with a patient as he died from the disease, even though she couldn’t do the same for her father who died alone in a nursing home from COVID-19.

“I remember thinking that this gentleman was just like my dad. He had the same blue eyes,” Turner said. “And I was on the Zoom call with his only son as he said goodbye to him. And that will haunt me and stay with me for the rest of my life. And all of us frontline workers have experiences like this.”

A food service worker, Emilio Gonzalez, told the working group about the lingering effects he has from contracting COVID-19.

“Holding my role in the production line almost cost me my life,” Gonzalez said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I have survived to realize that me and many others like me do not have the support that reflects our work and our essentiality.”

Antonio Jimenez asked the working group to include meatpacking workers like himself. He got sick with COVID-19 as did a majority of his coworkers as the virus ripped through plants where people labor in close quarters.

“In my plant, more than 50% of the workers got COVID,” Jimenez said. “For me, I struggle with lingering symptoms and fatigue.”

Amanda Jaeger, executive director of Minnesota Foster and Adoptive Families, asked the group to also think of the foster parents who struggled through distance learning, sometimes with children with high needs, and risked exposure to the virus by continuing to facilitate family visits.

“Our parents continued opening their homes even when it meant taking a COVID-positive kiddo,” Jaeger said. “They managed behaviors and really big emotions. Most important, they continued to love children, day and night, even when they didn’t have the tools and resources they normally have available.”

The group heard from representatives advocating for truck drivers, grocery store clerks and security guards.

Even Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea sent a letter to the working group asking them to provide bonus worker pay to court staff if they decided to expand eligibility beyond workers in health care facilities and nursing homes.

There seemed to be a consensus among members of the working group that the state shouldn’t give premium pay to all essential workers and said the amount should be “meaningful.”

“I hope that means we will focus on those frontline healthcare workers. Those working in facilities with COVID patients, and who really were putting themselves directly at risk everyday,” said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch.

On top of figuring out what amount might be meaningful, the group may also weigh how many hours someone worked, how at-risk they were of getting sick and their salary. But making the criteria too complicated would lead to delays in getting money to workers.

“Perfect and fast are going to be in contention with each other,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the chair of the working group.

The governor, the Senate and House appointed three members each to the nine-person panel. The majority caucuses in the House and Senate appointed two members, and the minority caucuses one each.

At least seven of the nine members of the working group must agree on a proposal and send it to the governor and legislative leaders by Sept. 6. If they cannot agree on a single recommendation, the group may send up to three proposals to lawmakers.

The members of the work group are: Frazier; Neu Brindley; Winkler; Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater; and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake; Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul; Department of Revenue Commissioner Robert Doty, Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove and Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Roslyn Robertson.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.