Pandemic bonus sign-ups top 900,000

Pandemic worker bonuses
During a news conference at the state Capitol Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz urged eligible frontline workers to sign up for pandemic bonuses before the July 22 deadline.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Pandemic worker bonus checks are shaping up to be smaller than previously expected due to heavy demand for the Minnesota-authorized financial recognition.

About two more weeks remain to apply for a share of $500 million set aside for certain occupations. To qualify, applicants had to have reported for in-person work during a specific time period in the COVID-19 pandemic.

State officials initially thought shy of 700,000 people would qualify, meaning the equal-sized checks would total about $750. 

So far, more than 900,000 have signed up, although fewer will ultimately meet eligibility criteria. Workers in health care, food service, emergency response, child care and other critical roles were identified in the law creating the bonus program.

“We knew from the beginning that the more people we got, the smaller the amount was,” Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday at an event meant to remind people they have until July 22 to apply.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to put $1 billion or more into the bonus pot. They said they would be open to adding more if lawmakers return for a special session, although the prospects for that appear dim.

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The state has an online portal to field questions and applications. It has partnered with labor unions and other organizations to get the word out to past or present workers, including materials translated into multiple languages.

“Our goal is to try to take down as many barriers as possible to make this as accessible as possible for every eligible applicant,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.

Not all applicants will get through the verification process. The state isn’t releasing data on the number of denials. There is a two-week-long appeals process for those who are rejected that will allow people to supply more information.

To be eligible, a person had to have worked away from home and couldn’t have been on unemployment for an extended period from the start of the pandemic through June 2021. There are also income limits.

Checks are likely to go out in September.

Minneapolis coffee shop barista Kasey Copeland
Minneapolis coffee shop barista Kasey Copeland joined state leaders in promoting the pandemic bonus checks.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Minneapolis coffee shop barista Kasey Copeland joined state leaders in promoting the checks.

“To Starbucks employees and other food service workers alike, apply,” Copeland said. “You are essential and the state of Minnesota wants to acknowledge you for the services that you provide.”

Meanwhile, Walz said discussions around a special session to split up the rest of a projected budget surplus remain stuck. 

He said he hasn’t ruled out calling lawmakers back to the Capitol without an agreement around tax cuts and new spending, but he’s not there yet. Ordering a special session without clear parameters could lead to further disarray or campaign-year theatrics that would further inflame political tensions.

But Walz said he’s heard frustration from voters over inaction that has kept more than $7 billion bottled up that could be used for tax cuts, to unlock federal transportation money, to shore up nursing homes and to patch holes in school budgets.

“If anybody's out walking those parades, they're hearing an earful from people. They want us to get this deal done,” Walz said.