Minnesota pandemic pay panel likely to miss Monday deadline

A legislative panel tasked with deciding who gets $250 million set aside for frontline workers will likely miss its Monday deadline.

At Thursday's final scheduled hearing, an ever-increasing number of workers testified for relief, some breaking into tears. But the cash-capped panel, unable to set an eligibility list and still debating philosophical differences, made little progress.

The panel was supposed to have a recommendation for the full Legislature to pass in September. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he remained hopeful for a deal before Monday but added "we'll see if that's possible."

Private discussions are expected over the weekend, said Winkler, a co-chair of the committee.

DFL lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz's administration support a maximum of $1,500 checks to a broad group of essential workers who worked on job sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans say the bonuses should be capped at $1,000 and go to long-term care workers, first responders, and health care staff.

"I think we have to be honest with the public and be real with what we’re working with," said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, the panel's other co-chair.

Lawmakers said they agreed workers would need to apply and the checks shouldn't be subject to state income tax. Administrative costs shouldn't come out of the $250 million pot, and the payments wouldn't make workers ineligible for other state aid, lawmakers said.

But the big questions -- who gets paid and how much -- are unresolved. Several people who testified Thursday said lawmakers needed to figure it out quickly and make a statement to essential workers.

"We nurses are exhausted. We’re called five to 10 times at least a day asking to come in and work more and give more," said Brittany Westermann, a nurse at Alomere Health. "I hear more and more often from my fellow nurses that they’ve lost their passion for health care."