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Pandemic front-line workers will each get $487.45 from the state, in a long-awaited recognition of people who played key roles as COVID-19 swept Minnesota.

State officials will send out payments to more than 1 million people, significantly more than initially anticipated. The money will start going out Wednesday, state leaders said.

Legislators and Gov. Tim Walz agreed in April to spend $500 million on worker payments after lengthy negotiations. They estimated that if 667,000 eligible workers qualified for the program, each person would get $750.

But the state was inundated with requests after opening the application process in June. Workers from many industries — health care, long-term care, courts, education, food service and more — were eligible for a chunk of the one-time cash.

"The numbers are stunning," said first responder Gene Sparks at a news conference to celebrate the payments. "That just goes to show how many people stepped up to keep our state running and safe during this pandemic. While others stayed at home, these Minnesotans kept showing up to make sure that we, and our families, were safe, fed and protected."

Applicants whose requests were approved will receive their payments in one of two ways. Those who opted for a direct deposit will get that within seven to 10 business days and others who asked for a prepaid debit card loaded with the cash will receive the card in the mail within three to four weeks, according to the state.

The payments are substantially lower than many had hoped.

"It's better than nothing," Keith Farr, a meat cutter at Lunds & Byerlys, said at Monday's news conference. "I would have liked it to be a little more. But, I mean, it is what it is. Everyone deserves it ... that worked at the time."

Farr, who has three daughters, said his wife had to stop working to be with them during the pandemic, cutting their income in half.

"It was hard times, but we made it through and we're finally here," he said, adding that he plans to put the money toward rent.

The state received nearly 1.2 million applications for the funds, then went through a verification and appeal process before landing on the total of 1,025,655 payments to workers.

"These workers deserve our thanks and I'm grateful to be part of the program that gives them a token of our appreciation," Department of Labor and Industry temporary Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach said Monday.

Frontline workers held up signs, including Sylvia Martinez, left, and Bill Schwandt, during a news conference announcing Frontline Worker Pay.
Frontline workers held up signs, including Sylvia Martinez, left, and Bill Schwandt, during a news conference announcing Frontline Worker Pay.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Many Minnesotans made "extraordinary sacrifices" during the pandemic and their cash recognition is long-awaited and well-deserved, said Blissenbach, whose agency is administering the program. She said state staff spent a "fast and furious" five months working to get out the dollars.

Everyone who applied for the money will get an email noting the state's final decision on their application and next steps before the end of the day on Wednesday, she said. There were a variety of reasons some applications were denied, including earning too much, receiving above a certain threshold of unemployment benefits or not working the required number of hours in a frontline sector, Blissenbach said.

The final payments will not be taxed by the state, she noted, but they are taxable at the federal level, something state legislators could not change.

The department did not immediately share details on how many people from different industries got the money, but Blissenbach said it will provide details on payments by sector and geography, along with other information, in a report to the Legislature 90 days after payments are processed.

Lawmakers spent months battling over the scale of what they dubbed the "hero pay" program, before reaching a compromise this spring. Democrats pushed to give out $1 billion to workers across a wide range of industries, while Republicans sought to spend $250 million and allocate $1,200 per person to a narrowed list of applicants from select sectors.

The report from state staff must show how much more legislators would need to appropriate in order to reach total payments of $1,500 per person.

"These are our workers, we should give them resources that they earn and that they deserve. But we'll have to see what that looks like in the next session," Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said when asked whether he would seek more money for front-line workers when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.

Despite smaller-than-anticipated sums, Frazier called it "a great day for workers."

Front-line workers deserve appreciation and respect for keeping people safe, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said in a statement.

"While 1 million Minnesotans are getting a small thank you for their work during the pandemic right now, Senate Republicans will continue to fight for permanent tax cuts so every working Minnesotan will see a 'bonus payment' in every paycheck — week after week, month after month, year after year," Miller added.