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How a bipartisan panel tasked with figuring out frontline worker bonuses turned ‘Hero Checks’ into zero checks

The nine-member Frontline Worker Pay Working Group could never come to an agreement on which pandemic workers should be eligible for the $250 million set aside by the Legislature. 

Gov. Tim Walz, with budget agreement in hand, leading Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman to a May 17 news conference.
“Heros checks” were a part of a late session deal among Gov. Tim Walz, then-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman.
When they announced the plan to give $250 million to frontline pandemic workers, Minnesota legislative leaders sounded as though the hard part had been completed. Even though providing such bonus checks was one of just four allowed uses of the money allocated under the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, only a handful of states had even tried to give money directly to workers.

Minnesota was going to be one of them.

The agreement among Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and then-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka was considered a breakthrough and a key piece of the final deal that ended the 2021 legislative sessions. But the deal only went so far. Left to work out the details was a nine-member group made up of three Walz commissioners, three legislative Republicans and three legislative DFLers. 

At the time the deal was announced, in June, nobody suggested that it could fail; how hard could it be to give away someone else’s money?

“Hopefully, we’ll have unanimous agreement from the nine. I think that would be the goal from the executive branch and the House and Senate,” Gazelka said at the time. “The emphasis we thought first and foremost was the frontline workers that worked in long-term care facilities. That’s frankly where many of the deaths happened. But I don’t think it’ll be a problem. I think it will go forward pretty smoothly.

“We’ll work it out together as to who gets what and how, but we do have a timeframe on that. We do have direction on that that we all agree on,” the East Gull Lake Republican said.

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Hortman suggested the hardest part was deciding how much to put into the pot, with the $250 million amount being the DFL position. “The goal is that they would complete their deliberations by Labor Day and then that [the Legislature] would meet to enact their recommendations,” Hortman said, predicting a brief special session to endorse the deal and send it to Walz.

“I’d encourage us to get this work as soon as possible,” Walz said on July 1. “I certainly don’t set the schedule …. I’m hearing from those essential workers a real sense of urgency, and when they hear, ‘We’ll get around to this when we can,’ that’s not going over too well.”

But last week, the nine-member working group acknowledged that it had failed. Needing at least seven votes behind any single plan, it could only muster six. The three Republican members and the six DFL members could only agree to send two competing plans to the full Legislature. An attempt at compromise — developed by the three DFL lawmakers, who dubbed it “a last, frankly desperate, effort” — was not sent forward, though it could be taken up by the House and Senate.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Evan Frost/MPR/Pool
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Without an agreement, however, there will likely to be no special session to take up the so-called “Hero Checks.” Even without threats by the Senate GOP majority to remove more of Walz’s commissioners — specifically Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm — Walz has said he would not convene a session without an agreement.

That reaching a deal would be difficult shouldn’t have been a surprise. Walz said early on that there were suggestions that the leaders decide who got how much, but the governor said he preferred a process that would allow residents to testify and for the working group to gather data on issues such as whether other bonuses and jobless pay was sent to potential check recipients.

He got that. The working group took testimony at 9 of its 13 meetings, all from people or groups that thought they should be included in the program. The working group hewed to a familiar pattern of each side staking out their positions. It just never got to the part where they work toward the middle and strike a deal.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, Sen. Karin Housley and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, Republican members of the working group, speaking at a recent press conference.
And they could never get past the basic math problem: the more people included, the smaller the checks. If every worker that Walz had declared essential was eligible — some 924,000 people — each check would be just $270.

DFLers on the group reduced that list to 660,000 health care workers, child care staff, school staff, food service and food processing workers, janitors, retail workers, airport staff and courts personnel. 

In attempt to salvage the talks, DFL members, along with the Walz commissioners, offered other concessions, including a two-tier system that would provide larger checks to health care workers and emergency responders. But GOP members started and ended with the demand that just 160,000 people — nurses, long-term care workers, first responders and meals on wheels staffers — be deemed eligible. They said they were not open to other aspects of the DFL’s “possible compromise.”

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That primary point of dispute had been foreshadowed by Gazelka and Hortman in June. Long-term care workers were the only people guaranteed to get the money under the language approved by the House and Senate, but the three leaders said the final package wouldn’t be limited to that. Nurses, first responders and corrections staff weren’t specifically called out in the law but they expected they would be rewarded.

“We’re acknowledging that there are a lot of people on the front line of this, long term care facilities and others that we want to … acknowledge that you were there and we want to give a bonus related to that,” Gazelka said. 

The federal guidance for using ARP funds was similar to the proposal put forward by the DFL, and the few other states that paid bonuses had broader lists of workers than the state GOP plan.

“Who will fit into the category and how will we determine how much to give each individual, that is a difficult thing,” Hortman said. “But the Democrats’ focus will be those members of the frontline staff who were lower paid, don’t have access to paid leave and don’t have a work environment where they were compensated for the dangers they were facing.”

When talking about who should be eligible, Walz mentioned nurses as well as food service workers, food processors — “folks who had to go to work to make sure we could eat” — and “folks who had to go to work to take care of our children so that police and firefighters and doctors and nurses could go to work. Those are the folks that his money was meant to cover, and we’ll make sure we get it out and get it to them.”

“I don’t want to derail the process beforehand. I think this is a real concern. Who’s gonna be left out?”

Hortman and Walz also said that more than $250 million could, and should, be in play. Hortman called the $250 million “an appropriate first step.” Walz noted that even if the $250 million was spent, the next session of the Legislature would still have $1 billion in unspent American Rescue Plan money to distribute.

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Legislative Republicans, however, were not open to growing the pot. And in the end, they did not move from their initial proposal, insisting that only health care and first responders should be included so that the checks could be as large as possible.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler
State Rep. Ryan Winkler
Not long before the working group collapsed in failure, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler compared the performance of frontline workers to the working group charged with rewarding them. “I mean honestly, if the frontline workers performed like this Legislature has performed this last six months, we would be in much worse shape,” the Golden Valley DFLer said, while also suggesting that had Gazelka still been atop the Senate GOP caucus, a deal would have been reached.

“We were making good progress until new leadership was elected in the Minnesota Senate,” Winkler said, referencing Gazelka’s resignation as majority leader and the election of his replacement, Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona. 

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller
Winkler said that is when talk among GOP leaders about replacing Malcolm picked up. “It does not give me a lot of optimism for this next session,” Winkler said of the 2022 regular legislative session, which is scheduled to kick off at the end of January. 

Perhaps a fitting symbol of the futility of the working group is that the members couldn’t even agree that they’d failed. 

“We did get our work done today,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater. “The end goal was to get a proposal, or two, or three, to the Legislature.” Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said the Legislature could then hold hearings, debate and deliberate.

But that wasn’t how Gazelka described the process in June. And if sending two different partisan plans forward was the intent, that could have been done after the first meeting — on July 28.