Child care provider Julie Fees does not feel that she’s being treated like a “hero.”
After working under previously unthinkable conditions during the coronavirus pandemic to care for children so other frontline workers could do their jobs, Fees and others who provide child care out of their homes are now exasperated to learn they are not eligible for the “hero pay” program approved in April.
Roughly 6,450 child care providers who operate out of their homes could be ineligible for $750 frontline worker bonuses if they are sole proprietors rather than limited liability companies.
“It’s just really disappointing and infuriating, to be honest,” said Fees, who is licensed to care for children at her home in St. Paul.
“When COVID happened, at the very beginning, everyone was petrified,” Fees added, noting that state leaders including Gov. Tim Walz asked day cares to stay open so doctors, nurses and others could go to work. “To be specifically called out and asked to step up and then be eliminated because we are sole proprietors?”
That employment designation is a major impediment. The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which is administering the hero pay program, says sole proprietors and independent contractors are not eligible because they are not considered employees.
Jenny O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the Labor Department, said the legislation approved by Minnesota lawmakers in April requires recipients of frontline worker bonuses to be in an “employer-employee relationship for at least 120 hours during the identified time period in Minnesota.”
Sole proprietors and independent contractors don’t qualify and it would take action from the Legislature to include them.
A POLITICAL CASUALTY
Minnesota lawmakers were aware of the discrepancy, but were unable to fix it before their legislative session ended May 23. The Legislature started the year with a record budget surplus, but failed to agree on what to do with it.
The roughly $5 million it would cost to make at-home child care providers eligible is a sliver of a multibillion-dollar supplemental budget and tax cut deal that lawmakers left undone because they were unable to break impasses on a handful of topics.
Walz and legislative leaders have been in talks for a special legislative session to rescue the deal, but negotiations broke down Thursday. Lawmakers will now likely head into the fall campaign with little accomplished this year at the Capitol.
“I am colossally disappointed,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said of intractable negotiations. “You have to want it to work in order to make it work.”
Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, who sits on the Senate jobs committee, also expressed frustration with work left undone.
“It needs to be fixed,” Housley said. “We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers with who takes care of our kids.”
Regardless of the larger political wrangling at play, Hollee Saville, president of the Minnesota Association of Child Care Professionals, says it feels like “a slap in the face” to home child care providers.
“It’s just disappointing because legislators and policy makers repeatedly said licensed family child care providers would be included in the program,” Saville said. “We have been asked ad nauseam for the last 27 months — especially by the governor — to stay open to serve families so they can go to work, putting our livelihoods and family’s health on the line in order to keep Minnesota’s economy going.”
A LONG WAIT FOR ‘HEROES’
State lawmakers hoped to have the hero pay program completed nearly a year ago. There was bipartisan agreement in the June 2021 state budget deal to spend $250 million to reward frontline workers with bonuses.
The details were supposed to be worked out last September, but other politicking over the state’s pandemic response got in the way. By late fall, after the state announced a projected budget surplus, Democratic leaders in the House pushed for expanding the amount for bonuses to $1 billion.
The Senate pushed back on that idea, wanting to keep the program narrow and most of the bonuses going to medical workers and long-term care providers.
In the spring of 2022, a bipartisan deal was struck to spend $500 million on hero pay bonuses of $750 per eligible worker. The deal included the broad eligibility House Democrats were pushing for, with everyone from janitors to grocery workers to teachers able to apply for the bonuses.
As of Thursday, about 626,000 workers have applied for the checks. If they all are eligible, which is unlikely, that would cost nearly $470 million.
The frontline worker program was tied to legislation that spent $2.7 billion of the budget surplus and federal pandemic aid to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund that was in the red. Doing so erased unemployment tax increases of as much as 30 percent on businesses large and small.
A CARE CRISIS
Minnesota has had a crisis-level shortage of child care providers for years. The cost of care has also continued to rise, straining families’ budgets.
The pandemic made both of those things worse.
Fees, the St. Paul family child care provider, knows counterparts who have quit and she’s not surprised. COVID-19 added another layer of detail to an already complex workday.
In addition to the health concerns of caring for children who may have been exposed to COVID-19, Fees says she spent extra hours each evening cleaning and disinfecting everything kids touch. If a child tested positive, her business had to close down for days or more than a week at a time. Many providers also lost income during much of the pandemic if parents were able to work from home.
“It was stressful and time consuming and overwhelming for us. And now, to not say ‘thanks’?” Fees said. “What would have happened during the COVID crisis, in the early days, if family child care providers had closed their doors and stayed home like everyone else?”