ST. PAUL — A Minnesota working group has failed to divvy up $250 million for front-line workers that remained on the job during the pandemic and sent two proposals to the Minnesota Legislature.

The Frontline Worker Pay Working Group held meetings for months and heard from dozens of workers deemed essential during the pandemic before closing out their panel Wednesday, Oct. 27, by voting 8-1 to advance a pair of dueling plans that varied little from those introduced by Democrats and Republicans on the committee in July.

The outcome punts the issue to the Legislature, where divided leadership could face equally difficult footing in reaching a deal. And it extends the wait for frontline workers who'd asked for the support after they were sickened with COVID-19 at work or had to take unpaid time off to quarantine.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators and commissioners who held the majority on the working group said the outcome was a failure for workers. And they lamented that Republicans had held up efforts to reach a compromise. GOP members, meanwhile, held up the outcome as a success and urged Gov. Tim Walz to call lawmakers in for a special session quickly so that the Legislature could set up a program for sending out checks to eligible workers.

"We were left with the Frontline Working Group failing in its mission," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who co-chaired the work group, said. "If legislators performed like front-line workers, we would be done with this today. And if front-line workers performed like legislators, Minnesotans would be in terrible shape today."

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Republican Sens. Karin Housley, left, and Mary Kiffmeyer, right, spoke to reporters at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, following the conclusion of a state working group on front-line worker pay. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
Republican Sens. Karin Housley, left, and Mary Kiffmeyer, right, spoke to reporters at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, following the conclusion of a state working group on front-line worker pay. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, also co-chaired the panel, and she said passing the proposals to the Legislature fulfilled the group's mission and could speed up the process of getting money out to front-line workers.

"We did get our work done today," Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said. "The end goal was to get a proposal or two or three to the Legislature. ... It was time to end this political theater. Every week that goes by is another week that these checks aren't into these front-line workers' hands."

MORE FROM THE CAPITOL:

At the heart of their disagreement was a dispute over what the term "front-line worker" meant. Democrats said it encompassed a pool of 667,000 health care workers, first responders, meatpackers, grocers and others who couldn't work from home and interacted with others face-to-face on the job. And they said that the group should be able to apply for $375.

Meanwhile, Republicans said it covered a smaller group of workers including nurses, corrections officers, nursing home caretakers and first responders who interacted with patients confirmed to have COVID-19. Those workers should be eligible for $1,200, GOP lawmakers said.

Walz has said the front-line worker pay, aid payments for farmers affected by drought and COVID-19 response measures should all come up as part of a legislative special session. And he drew a red line for Republicans, saying he would refuse to call lawmakers back to St. Paul unless senators agreed not to terminate commissioners or take up vaccine or test mandates for state employees.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, has so far rejected those terms and said Republicans would also like to weigh state laws around the executive branch's authority in an emergency if lawmakers come back for a special session.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com