Lawmakers reach deal on unemployment insurance, ‘hero pay’

Published 9:40 am Friday, April 29, 2022

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ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislative leaders announced a deal Thursday to refill the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund and to pay bonuses to frontline workers, resolving a monthslong impasse.

The tentative agreement includes $2.7 billion to replenish the trust fund and pay back a debt to the federal government for jobless aid, as well as $500 million in bonuses for workers who took risks during the pandemic. House Democrats came down from their $1 billion proposal for bonus checks — cutting the amount per worker in half to $750 but keeping eligibility at about 667,000 workers.

The proposal — which would spend all of Minnesota’s remaining federal pandemic relief funds of more than $1 billion — also includes $190 million for a pandemic response account to support efforts that are already ongoing, like the state’s testing apparatus. A House provision making hourly school employees eligible for unemployment insurance during the summer months was cut in the compromise.

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“We tried to get it done earlier,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, of Winona, citing the Senate passage of its unemployment insurance bill in February on a bipartisan 55-11 vote. “It took a little bit longer than we’d hoped but the final deal is a good deal for the people of Minnesota and we’re happy to get it done.”

Miller and Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, announced the agreement during a MinnPost Festival panel discussion, saying they reached the compromise with Democratic Gov. Tim Walz Wednesday night. Hortman told reporters later that the bill was expected to pass the Senate on Thursday before a House vote early on Friday.

The goal, the leaders said, is to get the bill to Walz’s desk for him to sign on Friday to avoid a Saturday due date for employers who saw their tax bills increase when lawmakers missed a March 15 deadline to replenish the trust fund. But the state’s employment and economic development agency said it was too late to recalculate and provide updated tax bills. It encouraged employers to pay the increased amount and expect a credit or refund in the coming months.

Hortman said at the panel she was ultimately pleased they were able to increase the amount for frontline workers from the $250 million earmarked by a working group of lawmakers last year that was never parceled out. But she told reporters later it was frustrating not being able to keep $1,500 bonuses for workers who braved the worst of the pandemic.

“I don’t understand how Senate Republicans can say that after COVID-19 we want to give businesses $2.7 billion to put them where they were before, but were unwilling to recognize what workers went through,” she said. “We had to eventually decide whether frontline workers were going to get a bonus or there’d be the risk of nothing.”

Republican Sen. Karin Housley, of Stillwater, told reporters it will likely take a few months for the bonuses application to be set up and checks to be mailed out.

Walz said in a statement that he’s proud the divided Legislature was able to come to a bipartisan agreement to get relief to businesses and workers. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce called the agreement welcome but long overdue.

“Economic recovery cannot wait for partisan politics, and employers face real challenges now, including historic inflation and worker shortages,” the group’s statement read. “We appreciate those lawmakers who supported and took steps to make this fix from the beginning.”