It was a well-intentioned move, meant to reward those who took some of the biggest risks during the pandemic to perform essential jobs that allowed everyone else to get health care, buy groceries and carry on some of the most basic tasks of life.
Legislative leaders came together last June in support of $250 million in "hero pay," after guidance from the U.S. Treasury allowed federal money to be used for "additional support to those who have and will bear the greatest health risks because of their service in critical infrastructure sectors."
But trouble was evident even at the outset. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said at the time that Democrats would focus on front-line workers "who are lower paid, don't have access to paid leave and don't have work environments where they were compensated for additional danger they were going through." Essential workers were defined in the federal Essential Workers Emergency Leave Act as emergency responders, those working in food service, long-term care, assisted living or child care. That could have made upward of a million Minnesotans eligible for the bonus.
At the time, then-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said of the additional compensation that "we're just acknowledging that there are a lot of people on the front line of this — long-term care workers and others — that we say 'Yes, you were there,' and we want to give a bonus related to that."
The problem quickly came in defining "and others." Republicans have argued that $250 million was enough to give a "meaningful" bonus of $1,200 to health care and hospice workers and first responders and others who interacted directly with COVID-positive patients.
Democrats say that leaves out hundreds of thousands of often lower-wage workers such as grocery and food service personnel and child care workers who also risked constant direct contact with infected persons when the pandemic was at its height.
No one is disputing the extraordinary courage that was needed to walk into a hospital or nursing home filled with active COVID patients at the height of the pandemic, when no vaccine or reliable treatment was available.
And yet, what of the hundreds of thousands of workers who walked every day into grocery stores, who cared for the children of those unable to work remotely, those who performed other vital tasks that could not be done from afar? They too encountered daily risk and often took the brunt of frustrated customers and others who refused to wear masks or distance. Many of them were sickened. Remember, these are the individuals who showed up to work, who did not avail themselves of enhanced unemployment.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who is co-leading a joint task force on this issue, told an editorial writer that Democrats had proposed a middle ground that would have given $300 to essential workers and $600 to those who were exposed to more certain risk because of their jobs. It was, he said, patterned after a bill carried by GOP Sen. Karin Housley seeking $700 for long-term care workers. The middle-ground proposal had the support of a coalition of affected groups, including nurses.
But there is another issue. Hortman told an editorial writer that "the only real sticking point is Republicans' desire to fire Jan Malcolm" — commissioner of the state Department of Health. A special session could give the Senate majority that opportunity, which Republicans have not disavowed. Walz has said he would not call the special session if Republicans intended to use it to dismiss Malcolm.
On Sept. 30, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said in unveiling the GOP proposal that "we owe these front-line workers a huge debt of gratitude for their dedicated and tireless efforts to help keep Minnesotans safe during the most challenging stages of the pandemic. ... The Senate is ready to get this bonus pay into the pockets of these workers as quickly as possible when the Governor calls us back for a special session."
That was nearly two months ago. On Friday, Miller was scheduled to meet by Zoom with Malcolm. In advance of the meeting Miller told the Pioneer Press that "I want to have a discussion. I want to share some of those concerns that I've heard from my constituents."
Fair enough. But the meeting has little to do with the matter at hand. Months of wrangling, threats and protracted talks have already cost workers any reasonable hope of getting bonuses in time for the holidays. That is shameful. But worse still is to make them pawns in a petty attempt to torpedo another commissioner who has herself done heroic work throughout the pandemic under brutal circumstances.
Miller has a tough assignment, having been elected to his post only in September, after Gazelka stepped down to run for governor. But he must recognize that time is growing short to honor a commitment to those whom he expressed gratitude to earlier.
His caucus may yet succeed in sacking Malcolm once the regular session convenes. But this is not the time for that fight. Special sessions historically have resulted from signed agreements among all parties to limit the agenda to agreed upon items. The special sessions Walz was forced to convene monthly to get a 30-day extension on emergency powers were an anomaly. It is time to return to a more sensible track that allows pressing matters that must be dealt with immediately to proceed.
Let's find it in our hearts to finally reward these individuals who, in ways large and small, made the worst of the pandemic just a little easier to bear.