ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) -- Legislative leaders at the state capitol say they've agreed to spend $250 million in federal pandemic aid to give bonuses to Minnesota workers who were on the frontlines of the health crisis. But who is entitled to the money and how much of it each person will receive is unclear, as the legislature works to wrap up the special session before the end of next week.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, on Tuesday said the goal is to establish a group of nine—three appointed by the governor, three by the House and three by the Senate—that will meet to tackle those questions about qualifications and deliver recommendations to the legislature after Labor Day.
"There's no shortage of heroes and it will be a difficult issue to ascertain who belongs in that pool and how much we can give them and how we distribute the money," Hortman said.
The American Rescue Plan, the latest round of economic stimulus funds approved this spring, sent billions to Minnesota, and pandemic premium pay is an eligible expense.
Guidance from the U.S. Treasury says the federal dollars can be used for "additional support to those who have and will bear the greatest health risks because of their service in critical infrastructure sectors."
Hortman said the focus for Democrats will be on frontline workers "who are lower paid, don't have access to paid leave and don't have work environments where they were compensated for additional danger they were going through."
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said the money isn't back-pay, which is part of a DFL-sponsored plan that would require up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave to an essential worker unable to work or telework for COVID-19 reasons like quarantining or caring for a sick family member.
That bill, called the Essential Workers Emergency Leave Act, defined "essential workers" as emergency responders, child care workers, those in food service, people who work in long-term care and assisted living facilities and more. The total number of essential workers is unclear, but could be upwards of 1 million Minnesotans.
"We're just acknowledging that there are a lot of people the front line of this—long-term care and others—that we say, 'Yes, you were there,' and we want to give a bonus related to that," Gazelka said.
Several states, local governments and businesses have offered some sort of premium pay throughout the pandemic, according to an analysis compiled by one research group. Each varies in scope from money awarded to people who qualify.
The Minnesota Nurses Association, the local Service Employees International Union, Education Minnesota and others in a statement praised the deal, but asked that the nine-person group making decisions about the money include workers in the process to ensure "what workers get is proportional to that sacrifice."
"While this commitment represents a good start, nurses and essential workers expect legislators to recognize the sacrifices we've made to keep us all safe and the state running during this pandemic," said Mary C. Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. "Because let's be clear, bonuses are for bankers. For workers, this is back-pay. This is making up for what we lost in pay and benefits while sitting in quarantine or waiting for tests."
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