The Montana State Capitol

The Montana State Capitol in Helena.

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Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration is moving to repurpose some leftover money from its “return-to-work bonus” program to pay health care workers to move to Montana, as hospitals and other facilities in the state grapple with one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 surges.

A panel of lawmakers and administration officials voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend that $4.3 million the state received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) be put toward the new program. It would pay up to $12,500 in relocation expenses, plus the taxes on that additional income, to each out-of-state health worker who comes to Montana to work for at least a year. That would cover at least 238 relocations, according to Scott Mendenhall, the state’s ARPA director. Gianforte makes the ultimate decisions on approving the recommendations that come from the state’s ARPA commissions.

“I think it’s well-known statewide that every employer is suffering from trying to find good help, and this is particularly pronounced in the health care industry,” Mendenhall said, noting that “we’ve already had an issue of trying to find and keep health care workers, and now with the pandemic it’s taken it up a notch.”

He added that there have been reports that health employees in other states are being fired or walking off the job. “We have, if you will, a need here, and there’s an abundance of workers elsewhere,” he said.

A number of nurses and other health care employees have in recent weeks been fired for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in states like New York that have enacted vaccine mandates for those workers. Upcoming federal regulations could create similar requirements in Montana, despite the state’s new law barring vaccine mandates in most workplaces.

Despite a summer surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the country that has largely ebbed in recent months, Montana’s rates of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have stayed stubbornly high. Hospitals have reported consistently above-capacity intensive care units and high staff turnover as workers get burned out from a pandemic surge with seemingly no end in sight.

The funding for the proposed relocation incentives will come from a $15 million program to offer one-time bonuses to Montanans who returned to the workforce since May. It was designed to incentivize Montanans to get jobs, while Gianforte also stopped accepting federal unemployment benefits for workers affected by the pandemic.

Scott Eychner, with the Department of Labor and Industry, acknowledged criticism over an initially slow roll-out of the return-to-work bonuses, but said those workers have been getting their checks more quickly in the last month and a half. Of $2.3 million paid out so far, $1.4 million has gone out in the last six weeks, he said. Nearly 2,000 Montanans have been approved for the bonuses, according to a state website that tracks the program. Eligibility ends Oct. 31.

“The efficiencies, the program modifications that we’ve made to speed up the process of getting money out the door, I think have absolutely paid off, and I think we will continue to see them pay off,” Eychner told the ARPA commission Wednesday.

He estimated there will be slightly over $10 million in final leftover funds, once the department finishes processing and issuing return-to-work bonuses.

Still, Democrats called the return-to-work program a failed policy experiment by the Republican governor’s administration.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, a Helena Democrat, noted in an online press conference later in the day that the governor’s decision to stop accepting federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits before they expired has cost the state’s economy tens of millions of dollars those unemployed workers would have likely received.

Abbott tried unsuccessfully during the commission’s meeting to use some of the program’s leftover funds to issue a one-time bonus to health care workers who have remained employed in Montana through the pandemic. It mirrored similar, unsuccessful attempts by Democrats during the recent legislative session to send direct payments to health care workers and other employees deemed essential who have continued to work during the worst months of the pandemic.

“It’s really just about who you’re prioritizing,” Abbott told reporters during the press conference. “… I think that Republicans are prioritizing out-of-state folks and trying to bring them in.”

Abbott’s proposal failed on a party-line vote, with Republican lawmakers and administration officials voting against the recommendation.

If the governor signs off on the commission’s proposal, the $4 million program will be administered by the Department of Labor and Industry. Another $350,000 will go to the Department of Commerce to advertise the payments to out-of-state health workers.

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