Jockeying begins for pandemic bonuses

A sign outside a building reads "Heroes work here"
Mother of Mercy, an assisted living facility in Albany, Minn., has endured staffing challenges brought on by COVID-19. Nursing home operators say they scramble to make sure they have enough nurses and others to ensure the safety and well-being of residents. The Legislature is working on a plan to give some front-line workers pandemic bonuses.
Paul Middlestaedt | MPR News 2020

Legislative leaders said this week that Minnesota will soon be paying some front-line workers pandemic bonuses, and jockeying for the bonuses has already begun. 

Minnesota lawmakers intend to set up a $250 million fund to pay the bonuses to workers who put their own lives on the line to help others through the COVID-19 threat, although exactly who meets that definition won’t be sorted out for months.

It won’t be an easy job, said DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman.

“There’s no shortage of heroes,” Hortman said. “And it will be difficult to ascertain who belongs in that pool and how much can we give them and how do we distribute the money.”

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Details are still coming together, but Hortman said a panel of nine — three each appointed by the governor, Senate and House — will make initial recommendations. The goal is to complete that assignment by Labor Day, and some kind of legislative ratification would follow.

Nursing home and assisted living workers should certainly be on the list, said Kari Thurlow, senior vice president of advocacy for LeadingAge Minnesota.

“The role that they have played in the lives of very vulnerable seniors and their families during this pandemic, the sacrifices that they’ve made,” Thurlow said, “I don’t know if people realize this, but they’re still working in PPE with eye shields and masks even in these very hot 100-degree days, which is very unique.”

Thurlow’s group has had a plan on the table since December to provide “hero payments” to long-term care workers who put in at least 1,000 hours in 2020. They estimate $700 checks would add up to $28 million industrywide.

“Based on what we’re hearing, there’s more than enough money in the pool to cover that,” Thurlow said.

But that could depend on how big the pool gets.

Groups representing nurses, grocery store workers, custodians, child care staff and others have been pressing to be part of the premium pay program.

A union for grocery, meatpacking and food processing employees has taken its case to the top of state government.

“With our members and their sacrifice in mind, we call on you to ensure that our members receive the hazard pay they deserve,” leaders of three United Food and Commercial Workers union locals wrote this month to Gov. Tim Walz. “Our members did not sign up to risk their lives, but they have been coming to work throughout the pandemic, and they deserve to be compensated for the extreme risk that they and their families face every day.”

Minnesota will use money from the federal American Rescue Plan to cover the costs. The federal law allowed for payments of up to $13 per hour for essential workers, with a portion of that free from taxes.

That definition of essential can be tricky.

Just ask Buck McAlpin, who represents the Minnesota Ambulance Association.

“EMS workers in Minnesota are not considered essential employees,” McAlpin said, even though they no doubt were critical during the pandemic. Some faced quarantines over COVID-19 exposure.

“Lots of them covered long shifts, long hours,” McAlpin said. “They responded to calls where they transferred and took care of COVID patients. And then they would have to go back home and try to be around their families. Many of them tried to not be at home with their families as they were working their active ambulance shift.”

McAlpin doesn’t envy the task ahead for drawing the eligibility line that has to fall somewhere.

“I mean, if everybody got a check for $20, it’s probably not a very good use of the fund,” he said. “The idea is to reward people who continued to go into work whether it was a store shelf stocker, a truck driver, an ambulance attendant, a firefighter, a police officer, whoever,” McAlpin added. “Where others were able to work safely from their homes during the whole situation.”