Pandemic bonuses, unemployment fix collide at MN Capitol

Burnout in healthcare
Nurse Jessica Mistic walks past the room of a COVID-19 who is off isolation but still needs care for complications from the virus or other health issues in Bemidji, Minn., in September 2021. The DFL-led House is moving quickly on a $1 billion plan to financially reward front-line workers during the pandemic.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2021

A rebooted push to provide financial recognition to front-line workers who reported for duty during COVID-19 is creating a fresh standoff that could become intertwined with another urgent issue.

The House Workforce and Business Development Finance Committee voted 9-4 on Wednesday, nearly along party lines, to advance a $1 billion bonus plan. It’s four times the size of a proposal Senate Republicans say they support.

The House DFL bill would make up to 667,000 workers eligible from a range of industries. It would apply to certain health workers, emergency responders, food workers and child care employees among others. Income limits would apply, and eligible employees would need to verify they worked a minimum number of hours between March 2020 and June 2021.

Checks could total up to $1,500 each.

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“These are the Minnesotans who have been on the front lines of this pandemic and kept our economy moving at great risk to their own health and that of their families,” said the plan’s sponsor, Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope.

An attempt to distribute a bonus pool of one-fourth the size stalled out last year. Senate Republicans have expressed reservations about bigger checks and wider eligibility.

Xavier Heim, a security officer and member of an SEIU local that represents custodial and other building workers, said checks should go to all those who risked their own safety, not just those in health professions.

“Our members never got the chance to work from home during COVID, staying the whole time cleaning and protecting the buildings of some of the most rich and powerful corporations in the world,” Heim told the committee. “Over 1,000 of our members have fallen sick during COVID, during the various waves, and five of our members have died.”

The bill would pay for the checks from a state budget surplus. It could get tied up in discussions over a fix a hole in the state unemployment fund.

Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said both deserve swift resolution.

“We need to bring the urgency and the fight to this as much as we’re bringing the urgency and the fight,” Olson said. “Let’s have that discussion. We have been saying we were going to be doing this for a long time, and it’s time to do it.”

Meanwhile, the Senate could vote as soon as Monday on a $2.7 billion plan to shore up the state’s unemployment fund and avert business tax increases. 

The bill that’s now cleared committees would pay off a debt to the federal government and restock the dedicated account so future claims are covered. It fills a hole created by a surge in benefits due to layoffs during the pandemic. 

Without action by March 15, Gov. Tim Walz’s administration has said it will be difficult to stop new double-digit business assessments on most Minnesota employers. The employer tax increases are automatic when the fund dips below a certain threshold. Walz supports a quick resolution.

Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said in the Senate Finance Committee earlier Wednesday that businesses shouldn’t be punished for a situation beyond their control.

“Many of them had to lay off people because they were required through the stay-at-home to shut down,” he said. “And we all understood at the beginning of the pandemic we weren’t quite sure what was going on.”

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, voted for the bill after pleading with colleagues to also look out for workers who went unpaid after getting exposed on the job.

“They took risks to their lives,” Marty said. “And a lot of them, they were just out of pay for a couple of weeks if they had to quarantine or if they caught COVID and so on.”

The Senate bill differs from a House version that is further from a final vote.