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Our View: Expect love in St. Paul for health workers this session

From the editorial: At a virtual town hall Jan. 22, "Duluth’s delegates to St. Paul ... made clear their focus this session won’t be limited to bonding or the surplus. After nearly two years of sickness, support for Minnesota’s most COVID-affected will also be in order."

Minnesota Capitol Dome
The electrolier illuminated the dome of the Minnesota State Capitol building on the first day of the 2019 legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.
Michael Longaecker / Forum News Service file photo
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Yes, there’s that huge $7.75 billion budget surplus and the equally huge number of ideas about how to spend it, save it, or give back to Minnesota taxpayers.

And yes, it’s a bonding session, at one time the only reason lawmakers met at all during even-numbered years. In Duluth, our state’s ongoing commitment to responsibly maintaining and investing in public infrastructure and amenities may mean big bucks this year for the Northern Lights Express, the restoration and renovation of the historic Duluth Armory, Spirit Mountain, the Aerial Lift Bridge, and more.

The pandemic, though, which continues to hold our state and nation in its deadly grip, will get plenty of attention, too, this session of the Minnesota Legislature, in particular the health care and long-term care workers on its front lines. So say Duluth’s delegates to St. Paul, Sen. Jen McEwen and Reps. Liz Olson and Jennifer Schultz. The three hosted a virtual town hall on Jan. 22.

Between anti-Republican rants and promos for DFL priorities, they made clear their focus this session won’t be limited to bonding or the surplus. After nearly two years of sickness, support for Minnesota’s most COVID-affected will also be in order.

“As a community, as a society, we really need to reevaluate how we value the caring professions, because they’ve been undervalued for so long,” said Schultz, who represents District 7A in eastern Duluth. “There was a crisis in the caring professions and in the health care workforce prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic just exacerbated the crisis.”

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Exacerbated may be an understatement. One in five health care workers has left the profession since the pandemic started, as the Atlantic reported in November. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates health care has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020.

This is why the Minnesota Legislature, as Schultz said, needs to “look at a whole slew of options and solutions to help people get training; to (help people) go into the caring professions; to establish higher reimbursements so higher wages can be paid; to offer more attractive benefits like paid time off, earned sick and safe time, tuition benefits, student debt benefits, and child care benefits — to really retain those workers we already have in those professions.”

The worker shortage in health care is only going to get worse as Minnesotans age. And, Schultz stated, “Most other states are facing the same crisis, so we are also advocating at the federal level to get support.”

National Guard members activated to help offer care in COVID-overcrowded emergency rooms and intensive care units is all the evidence Minnesota lawmakers should need to act swiftly and decisively this session. With the Legislature divided — Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, while the DFL controls the House and governor’s office — lawmakers must find a way to work together.

Olson is carrying a bill this session, she said, to help nurses stay in nursing. Potential retention incentives through the legislation could include counseling for burned-out hospital employees, student-loan forgiveness, and help with paying for child care.

“We’re just really trying to make sure that (nurses) stay in the field, that there are incentives to be there, that they have the supports when they’re at the bedside,” said Olson, who represents western-Duluth’s District 7B in the Minnesota House. “It’s a really comprehensive package that I'll be working on with the nurses association, to talk about and get across the finish line this session.”

Lawmakers will also debate more pay for front line workers, McEwen said. “Our health care system is a mess and cruel and profit-driven. We’ve got a lot of real problems in a lot of areas,” she said.

Child care, both its affordability and availability, is a workforce challenge across all industries, not just in health care, Olson pointed out. Watch for legislation this year, too, she said, to address its needs, including, perhaps, state dollars to help with the construction of new centers.

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With the pandemic refusing to relent, the needs of Minnesota’s front-line health workers deserve attention at the state Capitol in the coming weeks. Those needs can’t be allowed to be buried or lost when other issues — the budget surplus, bonding priorities, housing, education, public safety, and more — are also tackled.

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