ST. PAUL — Policymakers tasked with sending $250 million to front-line workers who stayed on the job during the pandemic have failed to reach a deal after months of discussion. And they couldn't agree that they'd reached a stalemate six weeks past their deadline to hand to state lawmakers a plan for the hero pay.
Members of the Frontline Worker Pay Working Group on Wednesday, Oct. 20, again parted without a compromise after two lawmakers sought to punt the issue to the Legislature. And they learned that at a minimum, payments wouldn't reach eligible workers for at least three months.
Lawmakers and commissioners who comprise the group will try once again to strike a deal next week but members seemed less than hopeful at Wednesday's end.
Here's a look at where things stand, and what's at stake, as lawmakers remain at odds over hero pay.
So where's the $250 million supposed to go?
State lawmakers over the summer agreed to put $250 million in federal COVID-19 aid toward one-time payments to front-line workers who stayed on the job during the pandemic. In particular, the money is supposed to help those that got sick with COVID and had to take time off of work or were exposed to someone with COVID and had to quarantine.
A panel of policymakers met 11 times to determine how that money could best be distributed and which workers should get priority. Because seven members of the nine-person panel couldn't agree on an approach, Gov. Tim Walz has not called legislators back to St. Paul to take up a plan for the funds.
What's the hold-up?
A few things are standing in the way of a legislative special session and a green light to get the money out the door.
First, members of the panel are divided over who should get the money and how much each worker should receive. Democrats and Walz administration commissioners on the state's working group said a broad pool of front-line workers should be able to apply for up to a $375 payment if they met eligibility requirements. About 667,000 workers would be eligible for the state benefit under that approach and Democrats have said they'd like to see the Legislature put additional money aside to give workers additional payments in the future.
Republicans, meanwhile, have said front-line workers who experienced a graver risk of COVID-19 when interacting with those sick or possibly sick with COVID-19 should get a bigger payment. They want to give nurses, nursing home employees, first responders and corrections officers a $1,200 check.
"If you increase the pool, you're taking money away from those folks that were truly on the front line," Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said Wednesday. Housley brought a motion to bring both plans to the Legislature where they could be negotiated into one, but that effort failed. "Tremendous sacrifices doesn't mean equal sacrifices."
Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Roslyn Robertson on Wednesday also said that even if they reached an agreement immediately, it would take at least three months to get money into the hands of workers.
“We all want this money in the hands of workers,” she told the panel. “We cannot even begin the process of estimating the time and the cost without an agreement.”
Walz administration officials have also called for lawmakers to approve a $10 million aid package for farmers and ranchers hit hardest by the historically dry conditions this year. Republicans and Democrats agree that it's a priority but have yet to finalize legislation on drought relief.
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And as COVID-19 continues to spread in Minnesota, Walz has asked legislators to approve policies that would let hospitals and nursing homes temporarily open up more bed space and mandate the use of masks in public schools.
Republicans, who control the Minnesota Senate, have opposed mandating masks and voiced frustration about the state's requirement that employees working in the office provide proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing. They said lawmakers should also take up the vaccine or testing mandate in a special session and weigh the state's laws around emergency powers available to the executive branch.
Walz in July gave up his emergency powers in an effort to reach a budget deal with leaders in the divided Legislature.
The governor has also called on GOP leaders to agree not to fire any of his commissioners during a special session. Republicans have said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm should be up for termination for her response to the pandemic.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, on Wednesday closed out the meeting by giving the panel a one-week deadline to come back with possible alternatives.
"I ask that anybody who has a compromise between the two positions that have been so clearly articulated today bring it to that meeting and we will find out if we have a basis for continued discussion or not," Winkler said.