ST. PAUL — A $250 million fund to pay back front-line workers who served in essential jobs during the pandemic won't be enough to make all those affected financially whole, members of a state working group said Wednesday, July 28.

At their first meeting, members of the Minnesota Frontline Worker Pay Working Group heard from dozens of workers who had to quarantine or take unpaid time off to recover from COVID-19. With nearly 1 million up for possible compensation coming out of a trying 18 months, lawmakers and state commissioners said they likely wouldn't be able to help everyone.

The group has a six-week timeframe to recommend to the Minnesota Legislature how to divvy up the COVID-19 relief funds and to decide who should qualify to receive support. And seven of the panel's nine members need to reach an agreement before anything could advance.

That could pose a challenge as the working group heard from Minnesotans who'd worked essential jobs in health care, education, food services, public safety, sanitation, trucking, mechanics and child care that put them at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19. And dozens said they'd struggled, mentally, financially and physically as a result of the pandemic.

"Not only have we seen death and suffering but we have suffered ourselves and we will continue to suffer because it's going to be a long time before we get over this experience," Mary Turner, a COVID-19 intensive care unit nurse and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said.

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Democrats on the panel said the group should recommend putting more money aside to compensate the pool of essential workers that took a financial hit during the pandemic.

"This is a good start, this is not enough,” Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said. “This $250 million, if we divide it by all those workers, would be a very small number and it would be insulting to do that. So we have to determine how we're going to do this in an equitable way and in a meaningful way."

Early estimates projected that 900,000 Minnesotans could be eligible for the funds as roughly that many had worked positions that the federal government classified as essential during the pandemic. But other groups came forward Wednesday to make the case for themselves and to request support from the state.

Republicans on the panel agreed that the $250 million fund wasn't as much as many wanted, but said the money should be prioritized to help long-term care aides and health care workers.

"Our charge is to disburse $250 million, that's the charge that we have regardless of how much we'd hoped we have or wished we had, that is how much we have and it's going to be a challenge," Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said. “I hope that our goal here is to make sure that this premium pay reward, for lack of a better word, I hope that our goal is to make sure that is meaningful and not a token."

Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, agreed and said the state should aim to give larger payments to those who worked with COVID-19 patients and those at the highest risk.

“We could give $50 to everyone in the whole state, but that isn't really substantial enough to reward those who were on the front line,” Housley said.

The group's leader, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the working group would meet one or two times a week through Labor Day, when it is set to turn in a recommendation.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com