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Our View: Checks for frontline workers: Make it happen, St. Paul

From the editorial: "A $1,500 check now from the state would be more than just a thank-you to them or a token."

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Jeff Koterba/Cagle Cartoons
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Essentia Health registered nurse Chris Rubesch treated patients stricken with COVID-19. His wife is also a nurse, whose patients are immunocompromised. At the end of tiring, stressful, exposure-laden shifts then — especially early in the pandemic when health care workers were rationing personal protective equipment, or PPE — Rubesch often came home and spent his nights in the couple’s camper van in the driveway of their Duluth home. His aim, his hope, he said, was to prevent spreading the coronavirus to his wife and to her vulnerable patients.

“We were really scared,” Rubesch said in an interview conducted virtually last week with the News Tribune Editorial Board. “To have to take that responsibility into our own hands, because for the most part, we weren’t given a system of protections to do that … meant, at times, not sharing the house together. It meant at times using our own money to deep-clean the house, to stay in our camper van in our driveway, and doing other things to go out of our way to make sure that we were safe and others were safe.

“It’s something that I expect of myself, and we expect in our profession. But what about those people who I work with who might not have the resources that I have?”

Many lower-paid nurses, health care food service workers and others can’t afford camper vans — or hotel-room stays to isolate from family members. But many did such things anyway, took on that burden and expense anyway, in the name of protecting public health. They didn’t have the option of staying home to work during the pandemic and its shutdowns.

Their sacrifices deserve recognition, appreciation from the public, and compensation, lawmakers in St. Paul and others agree. A measure to award $1,500 each to 667,000 identified Minnesota frontline workers — frontline heroes, really — was introduced and debated at the end of the last legislative session. But it didn’t get to the finish line, bogged down by disagreements over the total to dole out and who should get it.

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Frontline worker pay is back this session, with the state’s $7.7 billion budget surplus targeted to pay for it. It deserves speedy passage.

“They went to work every single day to keep us healthy, to keep us alive, and to keep our economy moving. … It is vital that we stand together for all those workers, that we make sure everybody gets a check,” Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, herself an RN, told editorial board members. “We’ve heard so many stories about what people put up with. We know there are frontline workers who … didn’t have leave pay so they took leave without pay if they were sick or if they had to quarantine (or) if their kids were sick. Those early experiences especially, before the vaccines, were quite harrowing for people.”

So-called “hero pay” or “bonus pay” from the state wouldn’t go just to health care workers. Other recipients are to include grocery store employees, custodians and cleaners, bus drivers, firefighters, police officers, child care providers, and others without the option of staying home or taking other precautions recommended to the rest of us. They masked up and carried on.

And a $1,500 check now from the state would be more than just a thank-you to them or a token, according to Rubesch, whose sacrifices during the pandemic are paying off: He and his wife have remained COVID-free.

“That kind of money is going to make a really huge difference with the people who were taking care of my coworkers’ kids when they had to go to work, who were delivering the mail, (and) who were helping to sell groceries in grocery stores. This is really about us working together as a community,” Rubesch said. “We realized very early on that in order for us to do our frontline work, we needed other frontline workers.”

Minnesota frontline workers already received a nod from lawmakers this young legislative session. On Friday, Feb. 4, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill extending workers’ compensation benefits to frontline workers who contract COVID-19 on the job. Appropriately, it was the first piece of legislation signed into law this year.

“Saying ‘thank you’ to our frontline workers simply isn’t enough. We need to deliver the support they need to be safe, healthy, and thrive,” Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said in a statement about the workers-compensation bill. “As they work to protect and support us, we also have the responsibility to ensure that if they become sick, they don’t have to fight an uphill battle to protect their economic security.”

The governor and most legislators, Republicans and DFLers alike, agree that checks for frontline workers — for their sacrifices and for all they did for all of us, to get us through — is the appropriate and right thing to do. In the early days of this legislative session, lawmakers can hammer out differences that should have been resolved last session. They can get this done sooner than later.

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And, if they can’t, perhaps they should be the ones sleeping in a camper van.

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