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The Minnesota Legislature approved $250 million for pandemic worker bonuses. Should the state give away more than that?

The number of frontline workers eligible for the money could range from 250,000 to 1,000,000 — or more. But the more people on the list, the smaller each check will be. 

The Frontline Worker Pay Working Group takes testimony from Emilio Gonzales, a food production worker, during the groups first meeting at the Capitol on July 28.
The Frontline Worker Pay Working Group takes testimony from Emilio Gonzales, a food production worker, during the group's first meeting at the Capitol on July 28.

One after one they appeared in person, on video or via letters telling their stories about the pandemic: Nurses. Aides. Truck drivers. EMTs. Long-term care workers. Janitors. Apartment managers. Child care staffers. Court workers. Corrections officers. Grocery staffers. Meat cutters. Police officers.

Each told the nine members of the Minnesota’s Legislature’s Frontline Worker Pay Working Group that they toiled directly in the path of COVID-19 or supported those who did. Some were sickened and some died. 

And now some of them are to be thanked — with a piece of a $250 million pot of money set aside from federal funds by the Minnesota Legislature.

One speaker, Brianne Bernini, a hospital emergency center technician, told members this week that her husband died while she was separated from him after she contracted COVID from a patient. “I know you can’t give me back the time or take away the horrible memories of fear and terror that hospital workers lived through,” she said. “But a significant bonus to all of us hospital workers would at least show us that our community appreciates the sacrifices we made to protect them.”

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The number of workers who meet criteria for payment could range from 250,000 to one million or even more. But all involved seem aware of the basic math at issue: the more people on the list, the smaller the check each person will get. 

“If this group narrows down the recommendation to 250,000 workers, it will mean a supermajority of frontline workers will receive nothing along with the indignity of having their work deemed to be something less than someone else,” AFSCME Council 5 Executive Director Julie Bleyhl and Legislative Director Ethan Vogel wrote in a letter to the committee. AFSCME Council 5 is one of the state’s largest public employee unions. 

But why is the number of workers who will be eligible for the money being determined by the three House members, three senators and three Walz Administration commissioners? And why is the amount of money available — $250 million — set in stone?

‘Anything we do will be inadequate’

It isn’t, it turns out, though the number is set in the state budget adopted in June. “It was the number Speaker Hortman could negotiate,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who is co-chair of the working group.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler
State Rep. Ryan Winkler
Could it be higher? Nothing in federal law says it couldn’t be higher. State politics — especially a Legislature divided between a DFL-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate — is the main factor. The GOP has favored a lower number, the DFL a higher one. 

“Two hundred and fifty million is what we have now. What I have said is, it’s a good start,” said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a DFLer from New Hope who is a member of the working group. “I think we’re going to learn as a group, and some of my colleagues have pointed out, that they believe it’s not enough.

“We’re gonna see that we need to provide more resources,” Frazier said.

Winkler agreed that substantial checks could be provided to workers with $250 million, as long as the pool of eligible employees is relatively small. But there were lots of people who went to work during the pandemic because they had to, or because they felt it was their duty, even though they risked infection from a virus that was still a mystery, Winkler said. 

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“It isn’t just people who work in hospitals and nursing homes who were on the front line and who were essential,” he said. “I think more money in the pool would very much help. Anything we do will be inadequate.”

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
But so far, GOP members of the working group seemed to be steering toward a limited list of jobs, mostly in health care and long-term care. “Everybody, I feel, was an essential worker if they were working,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, who is the GOP co-chair of the group. “But there were definitely occupations that had much more degree of risk,” citing those who treated patients with active virus. 

“We have to scale it back,” she said. “Two hundred and fifty million is a lot of money but it’s not enough for everyone who is getting in line.”

Housley said this week that she knows she will disappoint some people no matter which direction she favors, either with checks that seem too small or a list of recipients that leaves out deserving workers. 

Still, she does not support growing the pot. “I don’t want to give people false hope to keep coming to us on the committee and we’re going to keep handing out money,” Housley said. 

State Sen. Karin Housley
State Sen. Karin Housley
Housley also noted that federal ARP money does not have to be spent this year or next year; it can be held in reserve for up to three years and perhaps some of it should be for future surges, she said. 

“You heard today about surge No 4,” she said of testimony from hospital officials about the recent growth in infections blamed on the delta variant of the virus. “When does it end?”

Where the money will come from 

Minnesota received $2.8 billion in direct cash from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan, in addition to billions more in program-specific funds. Local governments received their own allotments. Only four uses were set out by Congress for the money that went directly to the state: to make necessary investments in infrastructure; to provide for government services that were threatened by the loss of tax revenue during the pandemic; to respond to the public health emergency or negative economic impacts of COVID-19; and to provide premium pay for workers performing essential services during the public health emergency.

The budget passed in June by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Walz checked the first three boxes, but it left the fourth unfinished. Under that budget, the working group is charged with presenting a check-distribution plan to a special session of the Legislature after Labor Day. 

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DFLers and Republicans on the work group are striving for consensus, knowing that all four caucuses and Walz will have to have an agreement in order to limit any special session on the topic. 

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Nick Pfosi
Gov. Tim Walz
The $250 million target is less than 10 percent of the state’s ARP money. But it isn’t the last of the ARP money available. Even after passing a budget praised by DFLers as generous — with projects and programs funded at levels not seen in years, if ever  — lawmakers left $1.15 billion unspent. The intention was to come back into regular session in January and decide how to spend that amount. But it is from that account that the $250 million would likely be drawn.

The federal leftover is not even all that lawmakers have in the bank. Walz himself was given $500 million in ARP money to meet immediate needs. He has used it to pay for summer school programs, and he recently used $14 million to extend Minnesota’s get-a-shot/get-a-C-note program to encourage vaccinations. But $395 million remains.

And the state will likely see a surplus grow to the multi-billion dollar level when the next official economic and revenue forecast is released by the state Office of Management and Budget in November.

The U.S. Treasury issued rules — 39 pages worth — for how states should look at premium pay. Those rules bar anyone who worked remotely and says essential workers should be those with regular interaction with patients, the public or coworkers or the handling of items that were also handled by those groups of people. They could also have been involved in keeping critical operations and infrastructure functioning.

A non-exclusive list of jobs that could meet the criteria includes health care workers; farming and food production employees, including those who work in grocery stores and restaurants; custodians; truck and transit drivers; warehouse workers; public health employees; childcare workers and social service and human service staff.

Other states also struggling to create bonus programs

Minnesota isn’t alone in struggling to figure out a program to make payments to essential workers. The state working group has had a hard time finding examples of other states’ plans, though a presentation by Louisiana is on the meeting schedule for Thursday.

A database prepared by the National Conference of State Legislatures doesn’t include premium pay as a category. Research by staff of the Minnesota working group found that only a handful of states have been wrestling with the issue. 

“I don’t think any state has gone as far as we have,” Winkler said, referring to the size of the payment pool. “I think that we might be the most generous, despite the fact that federal money went out to all the states.”

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If the hardest part of the process is deciding who gets checks, the second hardest part might be how to do it: That is, finding names and addresses of people who work in eligible fields, determining whether they already received bonuses from employers, and separating those in a job class who had face-to-fact contact with the public and those who did not.

Winkler worried that the group would construct a plan that depends on data and lists that the state doesn’t have.

Nothing in federal law says the amount of money couldn’t be higher.
Nothing in federal law says the amount of money couldn’t be higher.
Walz has been echoing the sentiment that the post-Labor Day session might just be one distribution of money. “We made the case that we need to do this first tranche and then look at what comes next,” Walz said Tuesday, describing the work of the working group as triage. “There will be groups of folks that will not be in the first group who will be deserving and will be highly disappointed. I think that will motivate us to come back.”

Frazier said he favors a different method. “My position is that we be as broad and inclusive as possible with the idea that we’re going to continue this conversation,” he said. “If we cut folks out, how do we determine that some folks just aren’t going to get what they deserve? We should not pit our workers against one another.”