1.2 million Minnesotans applied for 'hero pay.' What now?

hospital staff flip a patient upright
Nearly 1.2 million Minnesotans applied for 'Hero Pay — money intended for frontline workers.
Aaron Lavinsk | Star Tribune

Nearly 1.2 million Minnesotans applied for “hero pay.” That’s the money frontline workers can get from the state for working through the pandemic. Back in April, the legislature agreed on $500 million to be split equally between people working in 15 specific job sectors. But when will applications be approved? And when will workers get that money?

To answer all of our questions about what comes next, now that the application has closed, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s Deputy Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach joined host Cathy Wurzer.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to their conversation.

What were the original estimates for applications?

We didn't have an original estimate. We knew that there were a lot of people that worked on the front lines, but many of the eligibility criteria and the law made it very hard to estimate who would apply and who would be eligible. So our focus right now is taking these almost 1.2 million applications and processing them through our verification checks.

Why do you think so many people applied?

Well, I think it just shows us the sheer number of people who showed up and went to work at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and increased risk to their families, to do the things that we needed them to do. To deliver health care to our fellow Minnesotans. To make sure people were fed and cared for during the pandemic.

Can you remind us who exactly qualified for these payments?

There were a number of eligibility criteria in the law. The first was that you needed to be employed in one of the identified 15 frontline sectors. There was an unemployment insurance benefit threshold that you needed to be under. So you had to receive less than 21 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits — or more than 20 weeks.

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There was an adjusted gross income threshold that you needed to fall under, depending on your circumstances, and some eligibility criteria related to the type of work. So you needed to be unable to work telework status and you needed to be in close proximity to people outside of your home for at least 120 hours during the peacetime emergency.

How many of these folks might be approved for payments?

That's really hard to tell. At this juncture, we're in the process of running all of the successfully submitted applications through our verification checks, which are really happening with a number of different agencies. [The Department of Employment and Economic Development] is working on one aspect of the verification related to the unemployment insurance threshold, the Department of Revenue is running verification related to the adjusted gross income threshold and we at the Department of Labor and Industry are running verification checks related to the employment eligibility.

Just generally speaking, do you want to take a wild guess of how much the payments will be?

I really don't know at this point. I mean, we will have a better understanding after we get the denials out and people have the opportunity to appeal. And after those appeals are processed, we'll know how many people are in that ultimate pool of eligible applicants.

And there is an appeals process?

There is, that's really what we're focusing on right now is getting these applications through the verification checks and identifying the applications that will receive a denial. When that denial is received, there will be an opportunity for the applicant to appeal the denial and provide additional information as to why they believe that denial is an error. And that appeals period, as set forth in the legislation, is 15 days.

Do you have an idea of when folks might hear back about whether or not their application has been accepted?

Yeah, so the next people will hear from the frontline worker pay program is Aug. 16. Our anticipated appeals timeline would be Aug. 16, through Aug. 31. And people will hear hopefully on Aug. 16 whether their application is in progress and no further information is needed from them, or, their application has been denied for one reason or another. And in order to have their application continued for consideration, they would need to file a timely appeal.

Is there anything that folks can do who missed the deadline?

There's not, unfortunately. The legislation did set a 45-day application period and the legislation is very clear that we at the Department of Labor and Industry cannot accept applications after that 45-day window.

When you look at this program, there's been nothing quite like this in Minnesota before. How much of a lift has this been to get it up and off the ground?

Well, so the Department of Labor and Industry has been working in very close coordination with the Department of Revenue, the Department of Employee and Economic Development and Minnesota IT Services, as well as our vendor.

So it's been a big lift. We were able to get the application started 20 working days after the legislation was signed into law by the governor, which I think is a timeline that we knew we could do. And this successful application period is evidence that we were able to do it and it's been a big success so far, but it has been a big lift.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] INTERVIEWER: We now know that nearly 1.2 million Minnesotans applied for hero pay. That's the money frontline workers can get from the state for working through the pandemic. Back in April, the legislature agreed on $500 million to be split equally between people working in 15 specific job sectors, but when will folks applications be approved, and when will they get that money? Well, to answer some of our questions about what comes next now that the hero pay application process has closed is Nicole Blissenbach.

She's the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industries Deputy Commissioner. Commissioner Blissenbach, welcome.

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

INTERVIEWER: It's a pretty big number, 1.2 million people. What were the original estimates for applications?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: The original estimates were really not-- we didn't have an original estimate. We knew that there were a lot of people that worked on the front lines, but many of the eligibility criteria in the law made it very hard to estimate who would apply and who would be eligible. So our focus right now is taking these almost 1.12 million applications and processing them through our verification checks.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think so many people applied?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: Well, I think it just shows us the sheer number of people who showed up, went to work at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, increased risk to their family to do the things that we needed them to do. To deliver health care to our fellow Minnesotans, to make sure people were fed and cared for during the pandemic.

INTERVIEWER: By the way, can you remind us who exactly qualified for these payments?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: I sure can. There were a number of eligibility criteria in the law. The first was that you needed to be employed in one of the identified 15 frontline sectors. There was an unemployment insurance benefit threshold that you needed to be under, so you had to receive less than 21 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits or more than 20 weeks.

There was an adjusted gross income threshold that you needed to fall under depending on your circumstances and some eligibility criteria related to the type of work. So you needed to be unable to work telework status, and you needed to be in close proximity to people outside of your home for at least 120 hours during the peacetime emergency.

INTERVIEWER: What does the department think how many of these folks might be approved for the payments?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: That's really hard to tell at this juncture. We're in the process of running all of the successfully submitted applications through our verification checks, which are really happening with a number of different agencies. DEED is working on one aspect of the verification related to the unemployment insurance threshold.

The Department of Revenue is running verification related to the adjusted gross income threshold, and we at the Department of Labor and Industry are running verification checks related to the employment eligibility.

INTERVIEWER: So when you look at the $500 million, and I know you're winnowing down the pool here, if more people are approved, of course, you'll each share a smaller portion of the money, right?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: That is how the legislation is set up.

INTERVIEWER: That's correct. Just generally speaking, you might take a wild guess, how much do you expect the payments to be, generally speaking?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: I really don't know at this point. I mean, we will have a better understanding after we get the denials out and people have the opportunity to appeal and after those appeals are processed, we'll know how many people are in that ultimate pool of eligible applicants.

INTERVIEWER: And there is an appeals process?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: There is. That's really what we're focusing on right now is getting these applications through the verification checks and identifying the applications that will receive a denial. When that denial is received, there will be an opportunity for the applicant to appeal the denial and provide additional information as to why they believe the denial is an error, and that appeals period, as set forth in the legislation, is 15 days.

INTERVIEWER: OK, now we're at the end of July, do you have an idea of when folks might hear back about whether or not their application has been accepted and they're on their way to maybe getting some money?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: Yeah, so the next people will hear from the frontline worker pay program is we expect that to happen right around the-- sorry, August 16. That's our anticipated appeals timeline would be August 16 through August 31, and what people will hear hopefully on that August 16 date is either that their application is in progress and no further information is needed from them or their application has been denied for one reason or another. And in order to have their application continued for consideration, they would need to file a timely appeal.

INTERVIEWER: By the way, is there anything that folks can do who meet the requirements, they're listening right now perhaps, and they think, oh, nuts, I missed the deadline.

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: There's not unfortunately the legislation did set a 45-day application period, and the legislation is very clear that we at the Department of Labor and Industry cannot accept applications after that 45-day window.

INTERVIEWER: By the way, when you look at this program, you created it from whole cloth. There's been nothing quite like this in Minnesota before. How much of a lift has this been for DEED to get it up and off the ground?

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: So it's DLI is running the administration, so the Department of Labor and Industry, but we have been working in very close coordination with the Department of Revenue, DEED, and Minnesota IT services, as well as our vendor. So it's been a big lift. We were able to get the application started 20 working days after the legislation was signed into law by the governor, which I think is a timeline that we knew we could do and this successful application period is evidence that we were able to do it, and it's been a big success so far.

But it has been a big lift.

INTERVIEWER: All right, I appreciate your time and for the information, too. Thank you so much.

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: Thank you so much for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Nicole Blissenbach and Bock is the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industries Deputy Commissioner.

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