Minnesota officials are debating how to divvy up $250 million in aid for essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their challenge is figuring out exactly who will get a check — and how much each worker will get.

At the height of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans still showed up to work in person, including teachers, hospital staff, grocery store workers, servers and janitors.

"We could give $50 to everybody in the whole state, but that isn't substantial enough to really reward those that were on the front lines," said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, a member of a working group that met for the first time Wednesday to recommend how to allocate the money. "Two hundred and fifty million dollars is not a lot when you have this many sectors."

A law passed as part of the state budget in June specifies only that long-term care workers must be included. The working group must also consider increased financial burdens for workers and if people faced a higher risk of virus exposure in their job.

Testifiers spent nearly two hours making the case for workers they believe meet that criteria. They represented hospital workers, nursing home staff, day-care providers, maintenance employees, workers at meatpacking plants, personal care attendants and truck drivers.

"Our nurses have picked up double and triple shifts for the last 18 months. They have sacrificed being able to go home to their families. We've had nurses who have isolated themselves from their husbands and children," said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. She said nurses have lost an average 23 hours of pay during the pandemic.

Emilio Gonzalez said he contracted COVID-19 last November and is still recovering from the long-term effects of the illness. He hasn't been able to return to his food-packing job.

"Holding my place in the production line almost cost me my life," Gonzalez said through a translator. "I am not sure if I will be able to ever work again. I have had to learn how to walk and eat and do basic functions again."

It's unclear how many workers fall into categories considered essential — meaning they had to continue going to their jobs in person — in the earliest phases of the pandemic. Some estimates put that number as high as between 900,000 and 1 million workers, said AFSCME Council 5 Executive Director Julie Bleyhl.

"If every one of them were to receive a one-time check from the state, it could be as small as $250," said Bleyhl, whose union represents many state employees. "Wholly inadequate compared to their sacrifices."

Some recommended an income threshold to qualify, while others said legislators need to consider industries that haven't been touched by previous rounds of aid. Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said more money is needed.

"This is a good start. It is not enough," he said. "We have to determine how we're going to do this in an equitable way and in a meaningful way."

The nine-member working group includes commissioners in Gov. Tim Walz's cabinet and three lawmakers each from the House and Senate. Democrats have six appointees and Republicans have three members, but seven votes are needed to approve a plan, meaning any final deal must have bipartisan support.

GOP members signaled a desire to prioritize those who cared for COVID-19 patients.

"We are going to have to really focus where our efforts are, and I hope that means we will focus on those front-line health care workers, those working with COVID patients and those who were really putting themselves at risk every day," said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch.

The working group also needs to determine how much each person will get and how quickly the funding can be sent out. Previous rounds of state aid have been sent through state agencies.

"We could try to create a perfect solution where we have very carefully delineated criteria, but that is going to take much longer to get this relief out the door to workers," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, chairman of the working group. "Perfect and fast are going to be in contention here."

The working group has a Sept. 6 deadline to send a plan to the full Legislature, which will then meet in special session.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach