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Minnesota House passes $1B pandemic front-line worker pay bill

The proposal is four times the size of the original "hero pay" legislation lawmakers agreed on last year and includes bigger payments for more types of workers who reported to jobs in the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate Republicans say they won't support expanding payments.

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Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, discussing his proposal to give a total of $1 billion to workers who reported to their jobs during the pandemic.
Alex Derosier / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 24, approved a plan to distribute $1 billion in checks to workers who continued reporting to their jobs in person during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal introduced by Democratic-Farmer-Labor representatives would provide 667,000 workers a payment of up to $1,500. It applies to workers in fields including health care, day care, food service, retail and manufacturing who reported to their job for at least 120 hours from March 15, 2020 to June 30, 2021. Workers who collected more than 20 weeks of unemployment benefits would be ineligible.

However, the bill as it stands has little chance of success in the Senate, where it faces strong opposition from GOP lawmakers.

At $1 billion, the DFL-proposed legislation calls for four times the original $250 million front-line worker pay lawmakers agreed on last year. Negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on "hero pay" broke down after the sides could not agree on who would be eligible. Democrats wanted to give checks to a wider range of workers who faced exposure to the virus, while Republicans wanted a narrower set of front-line workers such as nurses and first responders.

House DFLers announced the billion-dollar worker proposal earlier in February, saying the state could afford to give more workers checks in light of a record $7.7 billion projected budget surplus. They quickly moved the bill through six committees to the House floor, where it passed 71-61 Thursday evening largely on party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

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On the House floor, the bill’s chief author Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said the state couldn’t take for granted workers who kept the economy going during the worst of the pandemic. He called on the Senate to agree to larger payments.

“This bill seeks to honor our essential workers for their service and their sacrifices,” he said. "There is not one of us that hasn't been touched by the work that has been done and continues to be done by our front-line workers. This recognition is long overdue and is only a small gesture to honor those that we have appropriately called heroes."

House Republicans called the proposal “legislative charity” and questioned if workers who reported to their jobs in person for 120 hours — three work weeks — should receive benefits.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, criticized democrats during floor debate for introducing legislation with little chance of passing in the Senate.

“This bill means nothing, and I want to tell the people at home: don’t get your hopes up, because the Democrats aren’t delivering anything for you today,” he said.

Senate Republicans said they wouldn’t support additional hero pay checks and announced on Thursday that they would push forward a tax cut that could affect all filers.

“Senate Republicans are in the position right now where we don’t think it’s fair to pick winners and losers, we don’t think it’s fair to choose some workers and not others. We don’t think it’s fair to pit one worker against another,” Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said Thursday at a separate news conference. “So we are proposing this tax relief package that provides all Minnesota workers significant tax relief that is permanent and ongoing.”

House Democrats previously said they’d like to see “hero pay” legislation passed along with a proposal to replenish the state's unemployment insurance trust fund. The state owes $1.2 billion to the federal government after the pandemic drove unemployment claims to record highs, and if the state does not return that amount by March 15, businesses will face higher taxes in April. House Democrats could use this deadline to pressure Republicans into negotiations on worker checks.

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The Senate on Feb. 14 approved $2.7 billion to reimburse the federal government and add $1.3 billion to the fund. Gov. Tim Walz said he supports that plan, Forum News Service previously reported.

Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email aderosier@forumcomm.com. Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to correctly describe the original front-line worker pay agreement.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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