Minnesota leaders debate how to tackle the state’s historic labor shortage

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Minnesota’s economy is rebounding from COVID-19, but its recovery is still missing a key ingredient: workers.

The most recent data shows more than 205,000 vacancies in Minnesota, a two-decade high and a problem that affects every industry. Labor shortages are particularly acute in health care, catering and other industries hardest hit by the pandemic.

“It’s truly universal. There isn’t a business I speak to in the state that isn’t facing a labor challenge,” said the commissioner of the Department of Employment and of Economic Development, Steve Grove. “COVID has been a big accelerator of a lot of these trend lines. Now the problem we face is, how do we turn it around?”

As employers struggle to find workers, bipartisan leaders say the projected historic $7.7 billion surplus creates an opportunity to tackle the state’s labor issues This year. Lawmakers are proposing sweeping solutions: connect every home to the internet, invest in higher education and workforce training for the jobs of the future, streamline hiring and sweeten benefits to entice people to return to work.

But they will have to overcome a deep philosophical divide between their plans, with Republicans largely favoring tax cuts to attract and retain businesses and workers in the state and Democrats saying better wages and benefits would hasten the pace of a return to the state. job.

Democrats are proposing to spend $1 billion on checks to reward and retain workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, and the DFLs who control the State House want to use $1.6 billion of the surplus to set up and pay two years of paid family medical leave program.

“If companies are looking for workers, it is extremely difficult to find them when the parents cannot be there because they are looking after the children or when they have adults in their life to take care of,” said the House Majority Leader. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

They clash with this plan from Republicans leading the Senate, who favor relief checks for a smaller pool of workers and instead advocate permanent income tax cuts. Republicans and DFL Governor Tim Walz also want to spend $2.7 billion to fully replenish the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which has been depleted by claims during the pandemic. Prompt action would avoid an increase in social charges for companies.

“We need to make Minnesota a great place to invest, not just for people starting businesses, but for people to come here and raise their families,” said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, who chairs the work of the room. and economic development committee. “You can’t come for the weather and stay for the taxes.”

When it comes to shortcomings in specific industries, there is more overlap than disagreement between the two sides. Both sides want to address shortages of healthcare workers and police officers while tackling the accessibility and high cost of childcare, which has been a barrier for many returning to work.

Many parents have stopped working during the pandemic as they juggle remote learning for their children and finding affordable child care. Democrats are pushing for increased reimbursement rates paid to child care providers through the state’s child care assistance program and want to allow more people to qualify for this help.

“We talk about looking for those who are unemployed, but we also need to think about those who have completely left the workforce,” said Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the Workforce Development Committee. work of the House. “A lot of parents quit their jobs; now, how can we reintegrate them into the labor market? »

To address the shortage of police officers, Senate Republicans last week rolled out a $65 million law enforcement recruitment and retention program, including $1 million for the Department of Security. to launch a publicity campaign to promote law enforcement and funding to help cover education and training. costs for people who want to become an officer.

‘If we don’t have enough police – and it’s a risky profession – we’re going to have to pay more,’ said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who is sponsoring a bill offering a bonus of signature of $10,000. to new police officers as part of the package. “We knew there was a manpower shortage, but the number one priority we need to put it on is making sure we have enough police officers… to make sure our communities are safe.”

Walz’s supplementary budget proposal includes student loan assistance and other incentives to try to encourage more people to become police officers, and House Democrats have said they plan to roll out their own plan to retain and recruit police officers and diversify the police force.

The quickest action both sides could take this session, however, concerns the immediate shortage of direct care and health care workers. Walz touted the success of his administration’s recent program to recruit 1,000 new practical nurses by the end of January using US bailout dollars to pay for college tuition, textbooks, uniforms and school fees. student exam.

Its budget attempts to scale up that experiment, supporting tuition-free pathways to get more people into health care while injecting an additional $115 million to support Minnesota’s health care workforce and $66 million to dollars over three years to strengthen the state’s health workforce. Senate and House Democrats also launched a plan last week to create a new student loan forgiveness program for nurses and address the mental health concerns of industry members.

“This shortage of healthcare workers is not going to get better instantly when COVID starts to slow down,” Walz said on the opening day of the legislative session last week. “That’s why we put things in our budget around medical health education to engage people in this career.”

At a panel with Walz and top legislative leaders last week, nearly everyone agreed tackling labor shortages needs to be on the agenda this year, but the Chief Senate minority Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, added that lawmakers cannot lose sight of the fight against COVID-19.

“End this pandemic,” she said, “and we’ll have a better chance in our workforce.”

Writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.

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