ST. PAUL — State workers on Saturday, May 16, urged the Minnesota Senate to approve their employment contracts and small raises in the final hours of the 2020 legislative session.

The contracts and salary increases have become the subject of partisan feuds as Republicans have pushed to renegotiate the agreements while state workers and Democratic-Farmer-Labor leaders have moved to ratify the contracts that were negotiated before the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on the state.

Gov. Tim Walz's administration and 11 labor unions representing state employees struck a deal on the contracts last year that included a 2.25% increase starting last summer and a 2.5% boost beginning in July. About 50,000 public employees were set to be impacted by the decisions.

If the Senate opts not to approve the agreements, state workers are set to see a pay cut as their contracts will revert back to prior agreements. And the state could face a challenge in reconfiguring state workers' health benefits as the agreements with raises also called for the workers to pay in more for their health insurance.

Jim Barbo, a corrections officer at the state correctional facility in Moose Lake, became sick with COVID-19 earlier this year while on the job. Forty staff at the facility were infected with the illness and three were hospitalized. Barbo said state workers were on the front lines dealing with the pandemic and should get the raises.

"We have been shorthanded and staff have been forced to do double shifts three days in a row. I would like to see senators who are failing to ratify the contract do this work," Barbo said. "This is affecting real people. We do all this work because we are dedicated state employees who have made a commitment to the people of Minnesota."

GOP leaders in the Senate said the state should renegotiate the contracts as the state faces a projected $2.4 billion deficit in the state's two-year $48 billion spending plan.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Saturday said lawmakers were in the middle of an "epic fight" to reopen the state worker contracts. Republicans said in the face of a budget shortfall the state should approve part of the proposed pay raises but cut another set that was scheduled to begin in July.

“What I would have done is given them their pay raise last July and the benefit changes that they did, but they’ve decided to play winner-take-all. They said, ‘No, unless we get it all, we’re not going to do it.’ So they’re not going to get it," Gazelka told the virtual Minnesota Republican Party convention Saturday. "To then expect them to get a raise when we have 600,000 people unemployed is just unacceptable.”

Gazelka said the Senate would take up the bill Saturday evening or Sunday and the measure could be part of a negotiation over approving a bonding bill.

The state has begun freezing nonessential hires to close the forecast budget hole and state commissioners and the governor took a 10% pay cut. The freeze on state hiring was expected to save the state $100 million through July of 2021.

The Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday approved the contracts and Walz has said his administration has no plans of renegotiating the agreements. They also urged the Senate to ratify the contracts.

“We need to resolve these state worker contracts and not throw the whole state workforce into chaos, especially in the middle of a pandemic when these people are actually working and performing essential services on our behalf,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said.

Democrats in the Minnesota Senate on Saturday wrote a letter to Gazelka asking him to bring the contracts up for approval. "Failing to pass their contracts signals to them that when the going gets rough, we will abandon them," they wrote.

Forum News Service reporter Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.