Frustration builds as lawmakers blow deadline for plan to pay frontline workers

Elia Starkweather, a janitor and member of SEIU Local 26, was among frontline workers who spoke at an event commemorating the anniversary of a COVID-19 state of emergency in March 2020.

Essential workers are taking aim at Republican members of a legislative work group tasked with delivering $250 million to Minnesota’s essential workers, accusing politicians of holding up the process in an attempt to pit frontline workers against each other.

“We went to work for the last 18 months,” said Rachel Hanneman, a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association who has worked in COVID-19 intensive care units at multiple hospitals. “And now we are asking you to go to work for us.”

Hanneman and other union members spoke during a press conference Sept. 15, nine days after the work group’s deadline for delivering a plan to the Legislature for distributing the $250 million to essential workers, allocated as part of the state budget passed in July.

[Click here to send a message to members of the Frontline Worker Pay Working Group.]

Lawmakers on the working group missed the deadline because they could not agree on an inclusive path forward, with Republican members demanding that the fund be administered in a way that would favor health care workers – and exclude many workers who kept the state running after the outbreak.

That’s not sitting well with some union members, including health care workers like Carmen Brown.

“I am a health care worker, and as a health care worker I am offended that Minnesota Senate Republicans are holding up paying all frontline workers bonuses,” said Brown, who works at Hennepin Healthcare and serves as president of AFSCME Local 977, representing clerical and general workers at the hospital. “To exclude anyone, that’s to say that you’re not part of the team.”

Workers potentially excluded if Republicans get their way include janitors and security officers, child care workers, school staff, meatpackers and retail workers – the same frontline workers celebrated as heroes for facing new, unknown risks after the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Many have been able to work from home during the pandemic. For essential workers, staying home to quarantine, care for family members, wait for test results or recover from illness has meant losing wages or burning through their paid time off.

Lawmakers, in fact, created the $250 million compensation fund as a compromise after failing to reach agreement on legislation that would have provided back pay to essential workers for hours lost during the pandemic.

Elia Starkweather, a janitor in Minneapolis and member of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 26, exhausted her sick days after contracting COVID-19 in January. She said 1,000 members of her union have gotten sick or been forced to stay home with a sick family member. Some, she said, have had to quarantine multiple times. Four Local 26 members have died from COVID-19,

Lawmakers, Starkweather said, “see us as just numbers” and not “as human beings, as people who have family.”

Lawmakers also set up the compensation fund as acknowledgement of the psychological and emotional toll the pandemic continues to take on many workers on the front lines.

Laura Heezen, a behavior analyst with Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, said she and her co-workers, members of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE), were tasked with serving the population most vulnerable to COVID-19, the elderly.

“During the pandemic MAPE members came into (Veterans Homes) to care for veterans who were scared, sick and missing their loved ones,” Heezen said. “Residents had to be quarantined, alone in their rooms, sometimes for months at a time. After a while, we were at a loss for words trying to encourage them in their darkest days and hours.

“This task force is taking too long, and they’ve done nothing to provide actual relief for the workers so desperate for reprieve.”

Several unions and community organizations have signed onto a joint statement to Republican members of the work group, calling both for an equitable distribution plan and for lawmakers to allocate more dollars to expand the fund beyond $250 million.

“We worked to not leave anyone behind during COVID, and now some legislators are holding up Essential Worker pay in order to exclude us?” the statement said.

“Many of us lost pay when we had to quarantine or be vaccinated. Yet when our bills come due, we have to pay them. The bill for this working group is overdue, and it’s time they deliver.”

The statement was signed by AFSCME Council 5, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, the worker center CTUL, Education Minnesota, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, MAPE, MNA, SEIU locals 26 and 284, UNITE HERE Local 17 and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189, among others.

Comments

  1. Deanna Joyce Sulentic says:

    I was a home health care worker who lost her job when home on quarantine,,now unemployment benefits are done and I have no income..

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