Minnesota lawmakers hear COVID horror stories as workers seek $250 million in pandemic pay

Lawmakers will have to reach an agreement on how to split up the $250 million in funding. (FOX 9)

Turns out, it's not going to be easy for Minnesota lawmakers to give away $250 million.

Workers from numerous industries detailed hardships with COVID-19 as they seek a piece of $250 million in pandemic premium pay. The Legislature authorized the funding in June, but now must decide who's eligible -- and who to leave out.

A nine-member panel tasked with recommending an eligibility list held its first meeting Wednesday, where labor unions and Democrats pushed to increase the pot from $250 million. Republicans favor a smaller eligibility pool, keeping within the current $250 million that's authorized.

"We could give $50 to everybody in the whole state, but that isn’t substantial enough to really reward those that were on the front line," said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point.

Democrats and AFSCME Council 5, which represents 43,000 workers across the state, said $250 million wouldn't be enough to cover all the workers who struggled through the pandemic. AFSCME estimated that 1 million workers could fall under the federal government's definition of essential, which would mean just a $250 payment for each.

"This is a good start. It is not enough," said state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope. "This $250 million, if we divided it among all these workers, it would be a very small number. It would be insulting to do that."

The legislation authorizing the pandemic pay only requires long-term care facility workers to be included. Teachers' aides, nurses, child care workers, grocery store workers, food processors, truckers, mechanics and personal care attendants all lobbied to be included over two hours of testimony Wednesday afternoon.

Like the divided Legislature itself, the panel is split. Democrats have six members -- three lawmakers and three appointees of DFL Gov. Tim Walz -- to Republicans' three. But to make a unified recommendation to the Legislature, seven members must agree.

The panel faces a Labor Day deadline to make a recommendation. The Legislature would then need a special session to authorize the payments to workers.

Workers across industries outlined their horror stories during the pandemic as they lobbied for a piece of the pandemic pay.

"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," said Mary Turner, who heads the Minnesota Nurses Association. Turner said nurses had lost an average of 23 hours of pay and benefits during the pandemic.

The list of testifiers went far beyond health care workers.

"I hope you remember it was often immigrants and people of color who faced this risk and often did not have a chance to work from home," said Eva Lopez, a janitor and vice president of SEIU Local 26.