Frontline worker bonus pay applications now open, early hours face challenges

Hundreds of thousands of workers who were on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota can now sign up for a $500 million pool of bonus checks.

Minnesota labor officials expect to receive applications from 667,000 people across 15 industries including health care workers, teachers, janitors, and grocery store employees. The application portal will remain open for 45 days, through July 22.

Gov. Tim Walz said he made the final decision to launch the program as planned after reviewing the system on Tuesday morning. The DFL governor expressed "high confidence" that the portal will work, yet said there's no need to apply right away because it's not a first-come, first-serve program.

"We’ve got 45 days to capture all of the eligible people. We need to do that," Walz told reporters in St. Paul. "If there are some glitches in the early hours, you can rest assured we’re prepared to deal with that, and we have the next 44 days to get them on board." 

The website buildout went down to the wire. Walz said the state's vendor added a Somali translation function on Tuesday morning, after adding other languages in previous days.

After the application window closes, the state has a 15-day appeals process for people who were denied. Officials with the state Department of Labor and Industry plan to make payments to eligible workers in early fall, said James Honerman, a spokesman for the agency.

The size of the checks will depend on how many people apply. If 667,000 people sign up, the payments will be $750. If fewer people apply, the checks will be larger, though state law caps them at $1,500.

A person must have worked at least 120 hours in one of the eligible industries over the first 15 months of the pandemic. No one who received more than 20 weeks of unemployment benefits is eligible.

There are income caps, too: $85,000 for a single filer and $185,000 for a married couple. The income limits increase if a worker dealt with COVID-positive patients.

Employers in the 15 sectors are required to notify employees that they are eligible and how to apply. Independent contractors, sole proprietors, and volunteers are not eligible for bonus pay.

The application system is fully online. The state will have at least 40 support agents to help applications who need assistance, with the ability to add more helpers, Honerman said.

The bonus checks will not count as taxable income in Minnesota but will be included in federal adjusted gross income. The payments will not affect a person's eligibility for Minnesota's public assistance programs.

Workers have been waiting for one year since lawmakers first approved bonus pay. But the divided Legislature squabbled for months about who was eligible and how big the checks should be. Ultimately, they settled on the $500 million pool as part of a broader deal this spring.