It was one of just four specific uses for the $130 billion sent to states and local governments under the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in March: money for those who worked on the frontlines during the pandemic. Governments were directed “to respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID–19 public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible workers.”
Yet doing what Congress requested was the very last act of the 2021 Minnesota Legislature, which created a $250 million fund with some of the ARP money sent its way, though the format means workers will wait for several more months before they see checks.
As part of a grab bag amendment to the taxes omnibus bill that contained a batch of items that didn’t fit into other omnibus bills, lawmakers created a “frontline worker pay working group” — a committee of three House members, three senators and three people appointed by Gov. Tim Walz.
Though there will be six DFL appointees on the group to just three GOP appointees, the rules are crafted to make sure Republicans will have a say in a final proposal: Any plan needs seven votes to get sent back to the Legislature by a Sept. 6 deadline. If the group can’t agree, members may present up to three versions, and a special session will be needed to approve a plan.
“Hopefully we would have unanimous agreement from the nine. That would be the goal,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who will appoint two Republicans on one DFLer from the Senate.
The only requirement in the bill on who will receive the money is that long-term care workers must be included. For any others, eligibility must factor in “a frontline worker’s increased financial burden and increased risk of virus exposure due to the nature of their work.”
But the three people who are deciding who will be on the working group — Gazelka, Gov. Tim Walz and House Speaker Melissa Hortman — have their own ideas about who should qualify.
“The emphasis we thought first and foremost was the frontline workers who worked in long-term care facilities,” said Gazelka, a Republican from East Gull Lake. “That’s, frankly, where many of the deaths were.”
Walz quoted President Biden, who said during the signing ceremony for the ARP that the money sent to the states was meant to help those most impacted by the pandemic “and we think those essential workers — whether they be nursing home workers, food production workers, grocery stores — folks who were on the frontline and who had no choice but to go to work, wear masks if they could and kind of just take their chances.
“Many of whom, if they got sick or they got quarantined, had no pay. They were asked to stay at home,” Walz said.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she wanted to focus on workers who didn’t have access to paid sick leave. “During COVID-19 there were a lot of heroes,” Hortman said, mentioning emergency medical technicians, nurses, doctors, many of whom worked in the early weeks of the pandemic without adequate personal protective equipment. “But the DFL focus will be on those frontline-heroes staff who are lower paid, don’t have access to paid leave and don’t have work environments where they were compensated for the additional danger of what they were going through.”
At the same time, the Brooklyn Park DFLer did not rule out premium pay for health care workers who had paid leave, many of whom are in unions that are a core part of the DFL’ political base, such as the Minnesota Nurses Association. Hortman cited those worker’s exposure to the virus. “They were also in rooms putting ventilation tubes down people’s throats who definitely had COVID-19 and didn’t always have adequate protective equipment,” Hortman said.
Who will be eligible?
Troy Bowman is a custodian who worked clearing Target stores during the pandemic. “I’ve got to be honest with you,” Bowman said at an event sponsored by his union, SEIU Local 26. “My experience as an essential worker feels like we’ve been treated as expendable workers.”
Bowman had to quarantine twice for a total of 30 days, during which time he wasn’t paid. Though he was able to use some personal time off, he would have preferred to use that for days off and vacation, not for quarantine. “I work in an environment where people walk in and out of the store all day, so I was gonna be exposed,” he said. “It was something I couldn’t control, but I was labeled an essential worker so I had to go to work and be at work. I didn’t have the option to work from home.”
The SEIU supported the hero pay plan as it passed the Legislature, but the union also argued that the details will be important. Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association has asked that workers be represented on the work group itself. While Hortman and Gazelka said they expect to appoint lawmakers to the group, Walz said he is open to using one or more of his appointments for a worker representative. (On Tuesday afternoon, Hortman named House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, to the working group.)
Who gets the money, and how much they get, are going to be the big questions for the still unnamed working group. Gazelka said $1,000 per person was the number that “was kicked around” for the hero pay bonus, but that the figure will depend on how many workers are deemed eligible. Basic math shows that for checks to be $1,000, only 250,000 workers would be in the pool.
But estimates about the size of the potential pool of essential workers have gone much higher. Walz’s initial stay-at-home order exempted so many categories of workers that it went through the alphabet more than once and included construction workers, child care staff, faith leaders and even news reporters and photographers.
A more-narrow description came when the state created the tiers to decide who would get the first doses of COVID-19 vaccination. The state determined that there were 44,000 “targeted essential workers” who were first in line — mostly food processing workers who had suffered numerous infections in crowded packing plants. After that came 530,000 “essential frontline workers” and beyond that were 350,000 people deemed to be members of “all other essential workforces.” That last group was to receive shots just before the general population.
All together, that’s 924,000 people. If they were all in the pool, they might only see premium pay checks of $270.
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, described the checks to be “reasonable help” but that recipients “won’t be retiring on it.”