State panel deadlocks over how to give away $250 million in hero pay

Published 7:07 pm Wednesday, October 27, 2021

By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

A monthslong effort to craft a $250 million bonus pay plan for Minnesota’s front-line pandemic workers concluded Wednesday without a deal, greatly reducing the chance any checks will go out this year.

The nine-member working group — six state lawmakers and three agency commissioners — had met since July to devise recommendations for splitting the pot. When it became clear they couldn’t rally around a single proposal, the panel voted to send lawmakers a DFL-favored proposal that would get smaller awards to more people and a Republican-favored plan that would issue bigger checks to fewer.

Working group chair Ryan Winkler, the House DFL majority leader, called the outcome disappointing.

“If legislators performed like frontline workers we would be done with this today,” Winkler said. “And if front-line workers performed like legislators, Minnesotans would be in terrible shape today in this pandemic.”

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Karin Housley of Stillwater, struck a more-optimistic tone.

“We did get our work done today,” she said during a press conference following the final meeting, noting that the law establishing the account and the task force allowed for up to three recommendations. “The end goal was to get a proposal or two or three to the Legislature. We voted for that.”

She and two Republicans on the panel stood firm behind a plan to limit the payments to about 160,000 health care workers who were in clinics, hospitals, nursing homes and other settings where infections loomed.

“We heard from so many front-line workers during our 13 meetings, so many essential workers. But this money was supposed to be a thank you to those who had direct contact with COVID,” Housley said.

Democrats pushed for inclusion of another 500,000 retail workers, janitors, child care staff and others who faced possible coronavirus exposure because they couldn’t work from home. The Democrats on the panel offered to create two tiers of payments to give bigger checks to health care workers than the others.

DFL Rep. Cedrick Frazier of New Hope, another working group member, said excluding some workers was “downright mean.”

“Some of our lowest-wage workers, some of the workers who had the highest spread of COVID of workers, many of them died. We have a proposal that would exclude many of those workers, a proposal that says those workers are not worthy of that $250 million,” Frazier said. “That is very disappointing. That is insulting.”

Labor and Industry Commissioner Rosyln Robertson, a Walz appointee to the task force, said workers who reported for duty during uncertain pandemic times “deserve to be respected, protected and paid for their sacrifices.” She said agency leaders will continue putting the infrastructure in place to get checks out quickly once a plan is authorized.

It’s now up to legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz to weigh whether anything can be salvaged for a possible special session, which only the governor can call. The issue also became tied up in debate over vaccine legislation and commissioner confirmations, and governors are reluctant to summon lawmakers back without locked-in agreements.

The Legislature isn’t due back in regular session until late January.

Winkler said it’ll be difficult for lawmakers in a divided Capitol to strike a deal during next year’s session, although he held out the prospect that more money could be added to the pool.

Republicans said they aren’t ruling out compromise later, especially if an economic forecast due out after Thanksgiving shows more money is available.