ST. PAUL — A month after their deadline to reach a deal on how to pay out $250 million to front-line workers, Minnesota policymakers remained at odds Wednesday, Oct. 6, about a plan to get money out to Minnesotans.
And while private discussions about a compromise continued, threats to oust a state commissioner, bring in discussions about mandating vaccinations for teachers and allow for additional COVID-19 flexibility for hospitals, nursing homes and schools threatened to derail negotiations.
Members of the Frontline Worker Pay Working Group along with workers who'd continued in-person service amid the pandemic on Wednesday called on Republican leaders at the Capitol to compromise to allow a broader pool of Minnesotans to become eligible for payments from the state. They continued pushing a plan to make eligible roughly 667,000 workers for a $375 payment if they met eligibility requirements.
Six of nine members of the group supported the approach, but ultimately one more would have to back it to advance it to the Legislature. Three Republicans on the working group put forward a separate plan to give nurses, nursing home employees, first responders and corrections officers in line for a $1,200 check.
Workers and DFL representatives said frontline workers beyond those groups had endured sizeable risk during the pandemic. And they said the Legislature should return to take up a proposal to grant the roughly 667,000 Minnesotans a payment.
“For God’s sake, it’s like how long can we endure this and be taken for granted,” Mary Turner, Minnesota Nurses Association president, said. “We want to be recognized, we want to be valued, and if we are valued and recognized, we will be willing to keep working for the people.”
The comments come a day after legislative leaders and the governor met in private to discuss the funding package as well as an aid proposal for Minnesota farmers affected by drought. Leaders in both chambers and political parties have said both should come forward as part of a special legislative session but have failed to agree on what the plans should contain.
Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, Oct. 5, expanded his requests from the Legislature, in a letter to lawmakers calling for more flexibility for hospitals, nursing homes and schools in responding to increasing COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant. He also asked lawmakers to approve policies mandating masks in schools and requiring teachers and school staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo testing. Walz said that without his emergency powers, he can't implement the changes without legislative approval.
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, in response said he was hopeful that policymakers could strike a deal on frontline hero pay but raised concerns about expanding the list of proposals up for consideration during a special session.
“The growing list of requests from Governor Walz is not productive towards ensuring these dedicated workers receive their bonus pay in a timely manner," Miller said in a statement Tuesday.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the COVID-19 mitigation measures should be a top priority in a special legislative session. And he raised concerns about GOP lawmakers tying a special session to conversations about state vaccination mandates or terminating Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
"There are a lot of these issues that could wait, but the COVID-sensitive issues should happen now," Winkler told reporters. “Vaccine politics I think are really poisoning a lot of our ability to get something done for COVID."
Earlier in the day Wednesday, a Senate health committee took testimony from state officials and employees about the implementation of a requirement that state workers provide proof of their COVID-19 vaccination or consent to regular testing.