MN House passes $1 billion front-line worker pay plan

People in masks and scarves carry signs during a demonstration.
Nurses picket Feb. 12, 2021, in Faribault, Minn., during a health care worker protest of a shortage on protective masks. Lawmakers have been trying since last year to reach an agreement on bonus payments for front-line workers.
Jim Mone | AP 2021

The Minnesota House passed a $1 billion plan Thursday to provide bonus payments to pandemic front-line workers, but DFL leaders still don’t have an agreement with Republican leaders in the state Senate about who should get the bonuses and how much each worker should get.

The House vote was 71-61.

The $1,500 payments in the House plan are intended for workers who were at risk of contracting COVID-19 while on the job during the peacetime emergency.

The legislation identifies 15 employee categories, including health care workers, childcare providers, school employees, retail workers and more.

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said front-line workers kept the economy going during the pandemic.

“There’s not one of us that hasn’t been touched by the work that has been done and continues to be done by our front-line workers,” Frazier said. “This recognition is long overdue and is only a small gesture to honor those that we have appropriately called heroes.”

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State officials estimate that 667,000 workers would be eligible under the bill to apply to receive the checks.

Rep. Liz Boldon, DFL-Rochester, said the financial help is overdue.

“All the front-line workers who put themselves in harm’s way to ensure our state could keep going deserve our support,” Boldon said.

House Republicans criticized the bill as being too broad and too expensive.

Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, said she wants to support the workers, but she believes the bar for eligibility is too low.

“My concern with this bill is that you only needed to have worked three weeks out of the entire pandemic that is still going on,” O’Neill said.

A companion bill in the Minnesota Senate is awaiting initial committee action.

Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said Republican leaders have been a roadblock to her bill.

“We need to continue to put pressure on our Republican colleagues in the Senate, because without them this will not happen,” Murphy said.    

House and Senate negotiations on front-line worker pay broke down last summer over disagreements over the size of the package. Senate Republicans favored a smaller bill targeted to fewer employee categories.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said the state’s large budget surplus has Republicans now focused on tax cuts for all workers rather than one-time checks to some.

“We don’t think it’s fair to pick winners and losers,” Miller said. “We don’t think it’s fair to choose some workers and not others.”