See more of the story

Being on the pandemic's front lines as a nurse meant Daniel Clute sometimes camped out in his Burnsville backyard.

Staying in a hotel was the other option while Clute, who cared for COVID patients at a St. Paul hospital, awaited COVID test results. The 32-year-old nurse needed to isolate after a possible exposure to avoid putting his family at risk.

While Clute didn't mind sleeping in a tent, having to do so illustrates the extraordinary lengths essential workers went to as COVID spread. They stayed on the job despite risks to themselves and their families — and occasionally needing to pitch a tent.

Their dedication requires more than words of gratitude. The federal relief dollars made available to states through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan can be harnessed to provide hazard compensation to front-line workers. Doing so should be a compelling priority, especially with the state's improved revenue forecast, as Minnesota legislators work on a budget agreement heading into the looming special session.

Included in the deal should be a $28 million "Hero Pay" program that would provide a one-time bonus of $700 to long-term care staffers who worked 1,000 hours or more during 2020, with reduced sums for part-time workers. During the session, legislation to do this was commendably introduced by DFL and Republican lawmakers.

Nurses and other health care staffers merit hazard compensation as well. Due to misguided federal COVID leave policies, nurses sometimes had to use personal leave or forgo pay if they needed to quarantine and couldn't work — an outrage. The Minnesota Nurses Association, a labor union, has reported that "56.71% of its members said they missed pay while quarantining and/or waiting for test results. 44.24% said they lost pay to care for coronavirus positive family members or child care due to distance learning or a closed child-care facility."

Language included in the budget of the DFL-controlled House would ensure nurses and other essential workers are paid back for unpaid quarantine leave. Doing so remains a DFL priority, said House Speaker Melissa Hortman in a statement. It's also a priority for Gov. Tim Walz. But legislation known as the Essential Workers Emergency Leave Act gained little traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) is sounding the alarm about the unpaid leave bill. In an interview, representatives said the cost could amount to several hundred million dollars or more. MHA also pointed out that its members reported thin operating margins before the pandemic and were further stressed by the halt on elective procedures.

The Minnesota Nurses Association disputes the MHA's projected cost. Still, more conservative estimates remain daunting sums. That's no excuse for inaction. Compromise could include a one-time bonus for essential workers using federal aid dollars, augmented by state funds if necessary. If enough funding is available, compensation should be considered for other essential workers — including cashiers, food plant workers and child care providers.

While few question workers' dedication, it's reasonable to ask: Why use public dollars to compensate workers? One important reason: All of us benefited from this critical work. Another: It's not going to happen on the broad level it needs to unless it's a government effort.

Some individual employers stepped up during the pandemic to provide hazard pay. But most did not, according to an Economic Policy Institute report. Many were not in position to do so. MHA has made its financial concerns clear. The state's long-term care providers face similar pressures.

At the same time, it's important to note that many of those who couldn't work from home earn substantially less than those who can. "While everyone in society has benefited from this risky and essential work, the sacrifices have been disproportionately borne by those with the least and who have little choice but to continue to work on the front lines,'' concluded a Brookings Institution analysis.

A collective debt is owed those who cared for us and kept the nation running. Tapping the extraordinary flow of federal dollars into the state for hazard compensation would help fulfill this moral obligation.