House Democrats push $1B essential worker pay proposal
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said Republicans aren't interested in the DFL's push to expand front-line worker bonuses, but the DFL-controlled house can place pressure on the Senate using a looming unemployment fund deadline.
ST. PAUL — Democratic-Farmer-Labor representatives in the Minnesota House of Representatives are advancing a billion-dollar bonus pay proposal for workers who were on the front lines in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House Workforce and Business Development Committee voted 9-4 on Wednesday, Feb. 9, to move forward a proposal to give essential workers $1 billion — four times the initial $250 million lawmakers agreed on last year. The eight Democrats were joined by St. Paul Park Republican Rep. Keith Franke in passing the bill along to the next committee for further discussion.
In a news conference Wednesday before the committee hearing, bonus pay bill author Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said Minnesota emerged from the tough early days of the pandemic with an estimated $7.7 billion budget surplus in no small part thanks to service workers and others who kept the economy moving while many got to stay home.
“Without our workers, without the work they put in day in and day out, putting themselves in harm's way and their families in harm's way, we do not have the surplus we have now, and we have to honor and recognize that,” Frazier said.
The new proposal is four times the size of the initial “hero” pay plan and would make eligible workers eligible for a payment of up to $1,500. About 667,000 workers would be eligible under the DFL-backed plan, according to an analysis from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The $250 million plan applies to fewer workers and would provide checks of up to $1,200.
Democrats are pushing for bigger bonus checks as the Legislature also works to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which the state owes $1.2 billion to the federal government for after the pandemic drove jobless claims to record highs. Lawmakers face a March 15 deadline to approve a plan and have it signed by the governor or else Minnesota business owners will see an increase in their payroll tax rates due in April.
Democratic House leadership supports replenishing the unemployment fund but wants to pass that bill along with hero pay legislation. Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said Republicans aren't interested in the DFL's push to expand front-line worker bonuses, but the DFL-controlled house can place pressure on the Senate using a looming unemployment fund deadline.
The House Workforce and Business Development Committee was expected to approve its own bill late Wednesday to pay back $1.2 billion in unemployment fund debt. The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to advance the proposal to the Senate floor for a vote and the bill’s sponsors encouraged quick passage to avoid paying additional interest on the fund. Without intervention, Department of Employment and Economic Development leaders said the debt could take a decade to repay.
“I think we need to get this moved quickly to make sure that Minnesota workers are protected in the event they face an unplanned, unexpected loss of employment to make sure that our Minnesota families are strong and sustainable at a time when they most need it,” Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said.
A spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans on Wednesday said that chamber would take the bill up for a vote next week.
Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email email@example.com. Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.