State preps for sign-up surge for pandemic bonuses

Published 6:54 am Tuesday, June 7, 2022

By Brian Bakst

More than a year in the making, a $500 million bonus program for Minnesota workers who took on tough assignments during COVID-19 is about to go live.

As soon as Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of frontline workers can start applying soon for pandemic bonuses, although the size of those awards is a couple months away from being set.

The Department of Labor and Industry, the agency steering the program, was running final system tests early this week before declaring the 45-day application window open. They’re aiming to avoid an application process that gets overwhelmed by an early surge and are stressing that there’s ample time for people to compile their necessary documentation.

“We don’t want people to think that if they don’t get their application on day one, that they’re not going to get money. It’s not a first-come, first-serve program,” said deputy commissioner Nicole Blissenbach. “Applying on day one is just as good as applying on day 10, day 20, day 30 or day 40.”

Blissenbach said a website containing details of the frontline pay program has already attracted more than 1.5 million hits and 250,000 requests for future updates.

A prolonged process of getting legislative approval for the program, which picked up steam in 2021 but didn’t culminate until this April, has given way to awareness efforts to alert potential recipients. They range from custodians to meat processors and nurses to emergency responders.

The state is partnering with community groups, unions and employers to spread the word. There will also be a marketing campaign. Employers in eligible professions are encouraged but not required to contact people who are no longer on their payrolls.

Jessica Hayssen with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663 said the union is among the entities pushing to get the word out to those who are eligible.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we include as many people as possible,” she said.

Union stewards have undergone training as navigators to assist coworkers. In the works are community signup events, blast texts and ads – print and online. There are considerations around the transience of affected workers as well as language barriers.

“With our union, we have things translated from English to Spanish to Karen to Karenni to Hmong to Somali to Burmese,” Hayssen said. “We make sure that the documents and the information is as accessible as possible to our union membership.”

Designated frontline workers had to have put in at least 120 hours at a job site over a roughly 16-month period. There are income limits, which vary based on proximity to COVID-19 patients. And receiving more than 20 weeks of unemployment benefits from March 2020 through June 2021 is a disqualifier.

Dr. Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association, said health systems are prepared to assist current and former employees with any necessary verification and documentation. But a key point is that workers themselves need to complete applications.

“Now the work is to make sure the health care heroes know that this program exists, know that they need to apply, know that there is a set application period and this is a visible recognition from the entire state of Minnesota thanking them in a very small way for their hard work night and day, holiday and weekends through COVID,” Koranne said.

Eventual check size will depend on how many people qualify. Initial estimates of 667,000 possible sign ups would put the payments at $750. Fewer applicants would mean bigger checks, up to a cap of $1,500.

“I’m hopeful if an individual is eligible, they will apply. But we know there will be drop offs,” Blissenbach said. “We won’t know until we know.”

In addition to the 45-day application window, people who are turned back have 15 days to appeal. The final roster of recipients is expected to be ready by the end of August. Payments will begin after Labor Day if all stays on course.

Eva Lopez, a janitor at a big-box retail store and vice president of SEIU Local 26, said many in the union that also represents security guards, window washers and airport workers were sickened with COVID and a handful died. She stands ready to help others in the union apply and said there will be a push in break rooms and other job sites to work through the process.

“This money maybe was not too much but it will help with something for food,” Lopez said. “I think more than how much money it is, is the support that we achieved for them.”

As for what she will do with her own share?

“I’m putting this money in my son’s college account,” Lopez said.