GOP plan limits pandemic bonuses to 200,000 workers

Minnesota Republican lawmakers proposed limiting COVID-19 pandemic bonus pay to a smaller pool of workers Thursday, while Democrats said the plan "insults" workers left out.

The GOP plan would send $1,200 checks to 208,000 nurses, hospice providers, nursing home staffers, first responders and corrections officers. The Legislature has authorized $250 million for the bonuses, but a legislative panel tasked with deciding the eligibility criteria has deadlocked for the past two months.

Republicans said the 208,000 workers were at the most personal risk during the pandemic. During a news conference at the state Capitol, they warned Democrats about casting a wider net.

"Any more workers you add to the pool, then they’re going to have to explain to the nurses and health care workers why they’re getting a lesser amount," said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater and a co-chair of the pandemic pay panel.

As soon as Republicans left the podium, union workers reacted in frustration to the proposal.

Troy Bowman, a janitor in downtown Minneapolis, said he was "appalled" that he and others were left out.

"We all went out there and sacrificed our lives. We didn’t have the option to work from home," Bowman said. "We are not expendable."

The legislative panel has heard from dozens of frontline workers over several weeks of hearings. At the last public meeting just before Labor Day, lawmakers said they had agreed that workers would need to apply for the bonuses and the pay and would not be subject to Minnesota income tax. Yet most issues remain unresolved. 

Even if lawmakers agreed on the size of the checks and who will get them, a special session needed to authorize the payments is uncertain.

Gov. Tim Walz has sought a guarantee from Senate Republicans that they won't use the special session to fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Republicans, who control the Senate and have confirmation power over Walz's commissioners, have not committed.

"Our task is $250 million for the hero pay bonuses. All of that is separate for another day, another time," Housley said.

After the GOP's news conference, Democratic members of the pay panel released statements critical of the Republican plan.

"The Republican proposal insults and discounts the sacrifices of the other frontline workers they leave out," said state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope.