More than 200,000 Minnesotans have received denial notices for bonus checks through the state's "hero pay" program this week, marking the beginning of a two-week period for people to appeal that decision.
Nearly 1 million Minnesotans are still in line for a check through the program, blowing past original estimates of how many would apply for a slice of the $500 million set aside for frontline workers at the height of the pandemic.
Kirk Klocke was one of 214,209 people — roughly 18% of all applicants — who were denied. Klocke estimates he worked 35 to 40 hours a week in the produce department in the downtown Minneapolis Target in 2020.
"I undoubtedly qualify," he said. "I remember how uncomfortable it was to wear a mask when you're lifting boxes and talking to people all day."
Klocke was among more than 95,000 Minnesotans — or nearly half of those who got denial notices — who were denied based on challenges in verifying their identification. He's already appealed the denial and submitted photos of his ID and a selfie for extra verification purposes. Klocke was notified that he successfully updated his form, but he doesn't know yet if his denial has been reversed.
Lawmakers struck a deal in April to send $500 million to frontline workers, but the legislation included eligibility requirements to ensure applicants were going to work in person during the height of the pandemic.
Eligible workers include those in health care — including long-term care and home care — the courts, child care, public schools, retail, food services, public transit and manufacturing. There are also income limits and a threshold for how much an applicant could collect in unemployment benefits.
Applicants must have logged at least 120 hours of in-person work with people outside of their home from March 15, 2020, to June 30, 2021.
The state estimates nearly 55,000 people who applied surpassed the threshold for unemployment benefits, and the employment status of a similar number of applicants couldn't be verified. The state said nearly 43,000 applicants made too much money to be eligible for the program. There were also more than 47,000 duplicate applications.
Applicants who were denied have until Aug. 31 to appeal. Those who weren't subject to a denial received an e-mail saying that no further action is needed, but they should wait for a final e-mail after the appeals period closes letting them know if they were officially accepted or denied.
Nicole Blissenbach, the temporary Department of Labor and Industry commissioner, said her agency is already reviewing appeals.
"The process is working as intended," Blissenbach said. "The correct people are receiving the denials, and we are seeing appeals coming through, so we know the appeal forms are working."
When legislators passed the proposal, they estimated roughly 667,000 Minnesotans would be eligible and potentially apply for the program, meaning each person would get a check of around $750. The checks could be even higher, lawmakers said, if fewer people applied.
But applications flooded in when the process opened in June — a total of nearly 1.2 million, or nearly double original estimates. Checks must be divided equally among eligible applicants, meaning the checks would be $500 or smaller if the pool exceeds 1 million people.
Blissenbach said checks will start going out this fall, but a specific time won't be determined until there's a better understanding how complicated processing some of the appeals will be.
"The legislation was signed into law on April 29," she said. "It's been quick. It feels like a long time, but it's been quick."
Sean Armstrong, a truck driver who lives in Red Wing, was denied a bonus. He doesn't have internet access at home, so he plans to go to his local library Monday to see why he was denied and file an appeal.
He said he suspects it's because his work is mostly solitary but that he still needed to haul goods across the state at the height of the pandemic. He's frustrated that the state didn't have a better estimate of how many Minnesotans would consider themselves essential and apply for the program.
"We do a lot to keep your stores stocked and jump through hoops, and this is how we're thanked," Armstrong said. "We were still out here working, not in the limelight, but we were still doing our job."
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.