Lawmakers face tough math in pandemic pay plan

People sit in wheelchairs in a room.
Residents at the Gardens of Episcopal Homes in St. Paul social distance as they're monitored after getting a COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

Minnesota lawmakers debating how to financially reward pandemic heroes discovered Tuesday how hard it will be to stretch the available dollars when one worthy sector gave an estimate that alone would chew up almost $100 million.

The Frontline Worker Pay Working Group focused its hearing on the plight of long-term care and nursing home staff during COVID-19. Many faced exposure, quarantine or serious personal illness while tending to the most frail and medically vulnerable.

Several told of sacrifices made when protective gear was scarce and COVID-19 was spreading through facilities. 

“The residents were scared, our staff were scared, families were scared, but we as a profession showed up to take care of our residents,” Austin Blilie, vice president of operations with Mission Health Care, which operates NorthRidge Health and Rehab. “While things have certainly gotten much better since the vaccine has become widely available, our health care staff continues to wear layer upon layer of PPE.”

Nicole Mattson of Care Providers of Minnesota said as many in the state hunkered down last year, long-term care workers reported for duty.

“This is a workforce who was on the front-lines of the COVID response and will continue to show up as our state faces yet another pandemic wave,” she said. “These are the heroes of the pandemic.”

Kari Thurlow, senior vice president of advocacy for LeadingAge Minnesota, estimated that $1,500 checks to full-time workers in the field and prorated amounts for part-timers would cost about $96 million. The topline amount is based on two weeks of pay for a typical worker. There are nearly 80,000 qualified care workers in assisted living and nursing home facilities who would benefit, she said.

The nine-member panel is two hearings into an accelerated process. It has until early September to deliver recommendations about who should qualify and for how much.

The account is meant to recognize people who provided essential services at personal risk during the COVID-19 fight. The working group has also heard from grocery store employees, meatpacking plant workers, custodial staff, teachers, paraprofessionals in schools and child care centers and others.

While members sound inclined to include long-term care staff in the payments, Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer says there are lines to be drawn there, too 

“The bigger policy question for us is what is that heightened risk, what is that sustained in-person contact,” she said.

The working group’s chair, DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, said the mechanism for distributing the money also has to be sorted out.

“I would hate for us to have $250 million set aside and then have only volunteer employers who want to apply to provide that when so many other workers stepped up,” Winkler said.

Many states have already fashioned bonus programs for health workers, teachers or other frontline professions. Some based it on an hourly pay add-on while several gave out  $1,000 checks to those eligible.

The working group plans to reconvene Thursday.

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