ST. PAUL — A Minnesota working group tasked with deciding how to divvy up $250 million to frontline workers remained at odds on Tuesday, Aug. 31 over who should be eligible for a check.
The group met just less than a week before a deadline to recommend to lawmakers how the federal funds should be doled out. And while lawmakers and state commissioners on the panel agreed that workers asked to quarantine or or take unpaid time off to recover from the illness should get state support they split on which workers should be at the front of the line.
For more than a month, members have sought to identify the front-line workers who put themselves at the greatest risk during the pandemic and should be considered for state aid. Almost 1 million Minnesotans could be eligible for the funds as roughly that many had worked positions that the federal government classified as essential during the pandemic.
Democrats on the panel said they hoped to set up an application process that would allow front-line workers to apply for as much as $1,500 in benefits for continuing their duties despite the risky environments posed by COVID-19. There would be restrictions based on workers' salaries and those who had an option to work remotely during the pandemic wouldn't be eligible.
And they suggested that the Legislature approve another round of funding to support those who faced financial hardship due to contracting COVID-19 or having to quarantine due to possible exposure.
"We're thinking of a $1,500 nominal amount knowing it is likely nobody will get $1,500 because we will get many more applications coming in but that is a meaningful amount of money and we'll see how many applications come in," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said.
Republicans, meanwhile, said the group should recommend a more targeted approach that gets more funding out to nurses, nursing home workers, first responders and others who faced the highest levels of risk working one-on-one with patients or residents. And they raised concerns that broadening the pool of workers who could benefit from the $250 million could result in minor payments for those approved for the checks.
"I do want to make sure that what we're giving folks is meaningful," Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said. "I'm so concerned about a token for them. I want to make sure that those folks that we know assumed so much risk and burdened so much of the emotional hardship... I want to make sure what we're doing is meaningful for them."
The panel is set to meet again Thursday, Sept. 2 before handing off a recommendation to lawmakers. Gov. Tim Walz would have to call a special session to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol to take up a spending plan. Seven of nine members on the work group will need to agree to advance a proposal.
Walz on Tuesday said he'd wait to call a special legislative session to take up the plan until Senate Republicans vowed not to terminate any state commissioners, MPR News reported. GOP senators over the weekend floated blocking the confirmation of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm over concerns about her stances on vaccination and masking.