Essential workers urge Minnesota lawmakers to pass bonuses

Published 6:53 am Thursday, February 10, 2022

ST. PAUL — Several people testified before a Minnesota House committee hearing on Wednesday to outline the need for a $1 billion proposal that would send $1,500 bonuses to health care workers and others whose jobs were deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic but who could not work from home.

The proposal, authored by Democratic Rep. Cedrick Frazier, of New Hope, is four times larger than $250 million earmarked for “hero pay” that lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to parcel out during a special panel formed last year. The bill includes more than a dozen categories of frontline workers making up a total 667,000 eligible people, including in health care, long-term care, emergency services, schools, child care, hospitality and retail.

“You don’t have to call me an angel. You don’t have to call us heroes, but what we would like is just a little recognition for the work that we continue to do,” Mary Turner, an intensive care unit nurse at North Memorial Medical Center, told lawmakers. “Because I’ll tell you what, right now out there morale is at its lowest point. This is exactly what we need … to boost our morale so we can keep going.”

To qualify for the payment, someone must have worked at least 120 hours between March, 15, 2020, and June 30, 2021, and fall under income limits of $85,000 for individuals or $185,000 for married taxpayers. A higher income limit of $150,000 for individuals or $250,000 for married couples is written into the bill for those “employed in an occupation with direct COVID-19 patient care responsibilities” to prevent the exclusion of ICU nurses, who may have logged higher salaries due to overtime at hospitals amid surges in coronavirus patients.

Legislative leaders from both parties have pointed to the frontline worker bonuses as a priority early this session, though figures differ on either side of the aisle. House Democrats cited the state’s $7.7 billion surplus for the increase to $1 billion for the provision, and hinted at packaging the bonuses with a measure to repay the state’s debt to the federal government and replenish the unemployment insurance trust fund after it was depleted during the pandemic.

“We can talk about business, but we have to make sure that we take care of the workers who fuel those businesses, who make those businesses go and keep Minnesota moving in the right direction,” Frazier told reporters before the hearing.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, of Winona, told reporters last week that his caucus was not interested in going beyond $250 million, which in their version would give $1,200 bonuses to a narrower range of 200,000 workers like nurses and staff at long-term care facilities. Republicans urged that a $2.73 billion unemployment insurance trust fund repayment repayment proposal that unanimously passed the Senate finance committee Wednesday move forward as a standalone bill.

The House bill passed the workforce committee on a vote of 9-4, with one Republican lawmaker joining Democrats in support of the proposal. Frazier told reporters that the bill has more committee stops but that he’s hopeful it will make it to the House floor for a vote soon.