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Essential workers press for COVID back pay

Union nurses, hourly school workers, custodians and other service industry workers are asking lawmakers to make them whole for uncompensated COVID quarantine time.

ST PAUL, Minn — The 2021 special session has given new life to efforts by essential workers to recover pay they lost while sidelined because of COVID exposure on the job or a positive test for the virus.

Nurses, hourly school employees, childcare workers, janitors and other service industry employees were kept on the front lines to help patients, students, families and customers through the pandemic. But when they were sent home because of exposure to the virus, a positive test or illness they weren't paid for that time.

Some burned through vacation and sick leave, also known in some workplaces as PTO hours. Some had no back up, so they weren't paid at all even though the point of staying home was to protect coworkers and patrons.

"Right at the beginning of the pandemic the frontline workers and healthcare workers were excluded from the federal mandate that you could get time off if you had to be quarantined, so we were never included," Mary Turner, a COVID care nurse who also heads the Minnesota Nurses Association union.

"So this has been a huge hardship for many of us. People have dipped into their savings, their retirements, their 401ks all because they had to quarantine, not because they wanted to do that."

Turner and leaders of other unions delivered thousands of signed petitions to Gov. Walz's office calling for the passage of the Essential Emergency Leave Act. They also delivered petitions to Senator Erin Murphy, a St. Paul Democrat and registered nurse who is carrying the bill in the Minnesota Senate.

One version of the House bill, authored by Rep. Cedrick Frazier of New Hope, would make workers eligible for back pay through two funding sources. They could apply for up to 80 hours of pay through the FFCRA, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in 2020. They'd be eligible for an additional 80 hours of retroactive pay through the federal American Rescue Plan

Rep. Frazier's bill passed the DFL-controlled House during the regular session and could pass again in the special session.  The challenge for Senator Murphy will be convincing Senate Republicans to support the idea.

One of those who carried petitions into the Capitol Monday was Troy Bowman, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 26, who works as a custodian at the downtown Target store. He's not employed directly by Target but works for Major Metro, a building services contractor.

"I had a mask, a face shield, rubber gloves and all of that -- I took the precautions but still was exposed," Bowman explained.

He lost 14 days in quarantine when a coworker was diagnosed with COVID. He'd been back to work for two weeks when he contracted the virus himself and was idled for 21 days in quarantine.

"It's over a month of worth of pay, so I've been behind and trying to catch up ever since."

Bowman says he got off work one morning and headed to a McDonald's restaurant because he'd heard the fast food company would be giving free breakfasts to essential workers.  After ordering his food the store employees told him the offer was only for those in the healthcare and law enforcement industries.

"They told us when this all started that we were essential, which is why they needed us to keep coming to work, to keep these stores open, while many others were staying home. But people forgot some of us were essential."