Frontline Worker Stories

Frontline Worker Stories

Throughout the pandemic, many MAPE members did not have the option of working from the safety of their home or they would not be able to provide the services that Minnesotans depend on. Here are some of their stories who worked in dangerous situations or incurred additional costs to help Minnesota.

Cynthia Isaacson Wed, 08/25/2021 - 1:19pm

We want to hear from you! If your job required you to go into the workplace or required significant monetary costs during the pandemic, reach out to

Angie Halseth, Dept. of Corrections

Angie Halseth, Dept. of Corrections

Testimony given during a press conference on 7.28.21

Angie Halseth

My name is Angie Halseth. I am a caseworker at Lino Lakes correctional facility.

As caseworkers, we help people navigate their way through their incarceration time, all the while preparing them for their transition back into the community. We act as their liaison to their families, the communities, the courts and social agencies. We assist them in reaching their goals such as treatment completion, identification documents, reunification with family and more.

That is the list of things we do when it is not a pandemic. During this pandemic, you can add to that list helping with laundry and food service. Some facilities gave us duty belts and updated self-defense training so we could act in officer positions. Some of us had to act as bailiffs during court hearings. Personally, I had to do temperature checks of all of the incarcerated people in the quarantine units. I also assisted in the mass testing of our population during outbreaks.

But like so many, extra work this year is just the start of the hardships. We were slow to receive personal protective equipment and items like plastic barriers were never an option for us. We sometimes had to meet with clients we knew were COVID positive but had very little to protect ourselves.

We’ve all worried that our jobs will make us or our family sick. I’ve had several DOC colleagues become ill from COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities, including one who gave Covid to her pregnant wife and elderly in-laws.  We have members who are currently suffering the long-term effects of COVID-19 and I don’t know if they will ever recover.

And for us, it isn’t over yet. Just this week, we had another positive test in my facility. The Delta variant has us all on edge as we know how quickly things spread in a closed facility with 1,500 people all living together.

Working in Corrections is a challenging and exhausting career. But there is great satisfaction in knowing that we’re working to help our communities and keep them safe.

We are proud to be frontline workers.  I am glad that this taskforce is getting to work today to find a way to recognize the sacrifices that so many made. As you proceed, I know you will discover the need is great and we hope you are ready to ask for more resources for frontline workers. We are a state that is lucky to have more resources available, and I am asking the State to spend those resources helping frontline workers try to be whole again.

Cynthia Isaacson Wed, 08/25/2021 - 1:25pm

Katie Harry, Minnesota Department of Health, Virology Unit of the Infectious Disease Lab

Katie Harry, Minnesota Department of Health, Virology Unit of the Infectious Disease Lab
Kattie Harry

My name is Katie Harry and I work at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) in the Virology Unit of the Infectious Disease Lab. Typically, my job is to perform testing for rabies as well as various other viruses. However, since March of 2020, the Infectious Disease Lab has also been doing COVID testing. COVID testing was added as a responsibility and did not replace any of our regular work. A lot of people have overlooked this fact. Full-time staff was not hired for COVID testing. Instead, about 60 employees have been working the equivalent of two jobs for the past 17 months.

The extra hours have taken a significant toll on my family and myself. I have worked six days a week with a lot of 12–13-hour days. At the height of the pandemic, I would get to work around 7 a.m. and I did not know when I was going to be able to leave. Testing for COVD is like an assembly line. Each person has a role to complete before it can move on to the next stage of testing. Therefore, our team relies on each other to get our jobs done so the next person can do theirs. There has been a lot of pressure and stress to get through massive amounts of testing.

For a while, MDH was the only center for COVID tests in the state. Eventually, some private companies and Mayo also started doing testing. It was not until December 2020 that MDH brought on temporary contract workers to help with this work. They were only hired through June of 2021, so that limited help is now gone, just when the Delta variant is rising and our workloads have increased again.

I have two young children who were in virtual kindergarten and second grade last year. My husband’s full-time job turned remote, so he was able to be at home with the kids while they were distance learning, but most of the kids’ learning experience was put on him since I had to continue going into the lab. Juggling family responsibilities with constantly working overtime is stressful. There have been times before COVID that I have felt burnt out, but now I know what that really feels like. I am exhausted. My team is exhausted. We have been working tirelessly for our fellow Minnesotans and have given up personal time, time with family and our safety.

Our lab is on the Capitol complex. We have had several security risks during the pandemic and are now often required to go through security checkpoints. During civil unrest near the Capitol we were evacuated and saw armed guards on the roof outside our windows. The security protocols have added an extra layer of stress and uncertainty while we just hoped to get through a full day in the lab so we do not fall further behind.

I am thankful for the $250 million in Frontline Worker Funding. We know there will not be enough to go around to everyone and hope more funding will become available because so many frontline workers have sacrificed a lot for their fellow Minnesotans to help us as we continue to get through this pandemic.

Cynthia Isaacson Wed, 09/01/2021 - 12:03pm

Laura Heezen, Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs

Laura Heezen, Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs

MAPE member Laura Heezen, a Behavior Analyst for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, submitted written testimony to the Frontline Worker Pay Workgroup. 

My name is Laura Heezen. I am a behavior analyst with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and a member of MAPE. Minnesota has five state veterans’ homes and I work at the one in Minneapolis.

Before I started in state service, I had no idea how much I’d love working with veterans. Working with our elders in the last years of their lives is a privilege. I admire their military service and how much they sacrificed. It feels very significant to be part of a team that is working to ensure the last years of someone’s life – especially an American hero’s – is going to be as fulfilling as possible.

I am part of the behavioral health services unit – we have the only psychology department within the veterans’ homes in our state. We have about 300 veterans in our Minneapolis home alone – most are elderly and have some form of cognitive impairment or mental illness.

As a Behavior Analyst, I provide specialized care to veterans with dementia. I work closely with our inter-disciplinary team to develop non-pharmacological approaches. In other words, we look at what we can do without having to add mood-altering medications. I am proud that our program is a national model.

Living in a state veterans home is supposed to be a benefit for our veterans because of the sacrifices they made. Staff members caring for our veterans also made sacrifices when COVID-19 came into our facility. Every day during the pandemic, MAPE members came to work to care for veterans who were scared, sick, and missing their loved ones. We put our clients’ health above our own because they needed us. I, along with other MAPE members, caught COVID as a result.

Some of my fellow members are now living with the long-term effects of COVID-19. We are tired and looking for relief for ourselves and our clients.

I am glad to know that this taskforce is considering how to support those who have been on the frontlines the last 18 months. I hope that you keep our veterans, and those who have been serving them in your thoughts. I also hope that you consider a recommendation to increase the amount of money for frontline workers. I know that there are thousands of facilities that have kept going this last 18 months – all with nurses, therapists, janitors, food service workers and more. Let’s not forget any of them.

It is critical we serve all veterans across our state in facilities that are fully staffed with people who have found relief and recovery after COVID-19. We can – indeed, we must – do things better. We are responsible for ensuring that the hundreds of elderly veterans in our care lead the best lives they can. They risked their lives throughout the world to make it a safer place for all of us. We owe them this.

Thank you.

Cynthia Isaacson Wed, 08/25/2021 - 1:30pm

Sarah Wittenberg, Case Manager Minn. Correctional Facility, Lino Lakes

Sarah Wittenberg, Case Manager Minn. Correctional Facility, Lino Lakes

My name is Sarah Wittenberg and I am a case manager at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Lino Lakes.

Working in a correctional facility is a dangerous job. It was a dangerous job pre-COVID-19. Now you add everyone’s emotions around COVID, more job responsibilities, isolating and masking and these facilities are like tinder boxes that could all blow up.

Or your life could explode, as mine did, when I got COVID-19 on the job. My life will never be the same. I am 44 years old and I had a heart attack and now only part of my heart works. I have trouble reading because the letters and numbers are all jumbled. My brain isn’t functioning the same – my doctor told me, “Thank goodness you were bright because now you’re average.” Once minor tasks like grocery shopping or helping my kids with homework are now confusing.

I began working at the Lino Lakes facility in 2003. My dad was in law enforcement and growing up I had no interest in the corrections field, but here I am and I am loving it. I majored in psychology in college. Initially, I came to Lino Lakes as a therapist to help offenders figure out how to stop doing what they were doing. I was later promoted to case manager.

I am diabetic and pride myself on managing my disease. When the pandemic hit I was allowed to work from home for three months. I worked with my colleagues and developed a work plan. Though I could have stayed out on COVID-19 leave all summer, I have always worked and insisted on returning and being part of the team. I became the “mask reinforcer.” It was very frustrating that there were no consequences for those not wearing masks; and these offenders were in the quarantine unit.

I tested positive for COVID-19 at my regular test on December 2. I had to find a way to isolate my kids, but still take care of them, and had to be out from work for 20 days. I didn’t know many people who had gotten COVID-19. I was very frustrated. I’m the one who shouldn’t have even been at work and I’m the one who got COVID. I lost my sense of taste and smell, and I couldn’t walk very far. My heart rate, normally in the 60s, was in the 130s.

Once I went back to work I noticed my breathing was still difficult. I went back for a few days and then my doctor filled out paperwork saying I couldn’t walk more than 75 yards. My office said they couldn’t accommodate me, so I filled out ADA paperwork and our facility denied it.

I was sent home for a month. I was having breathing problems, my heart was racing and I started to have chest pains. Then I began forgetting things. I couldn’t come up with answers quickly – “Mom, what’s another word for cat?” – I just couldn’t remember.

Even though I was having these symptoms, I wanted to go back to work.

I was admitted to the hospital where doctors did all kinds of tests, including an echocardiogram where they found out part of my heart was not moving. When I had a MRI my heart stopped working and had to take a drug immediately to reverse it. They called my husband into the room and told him there was something seriously wrong with my heart and they could either do bypass surgery or put in a stent. I now have a stent. Doctors told me the stress of the COVID-19 virus gave me a heart attack back in December and my body repaired itself on its own.

I began seeing a neuropsychologist because I couldn’t read – all I could see were jumbled letters and numbers. They wanted to rule out any other issues like Alzheimer’s, dementia, schizophrenia and so forth. All was clear other than my processing was slow and although I am left-handed, my left is no longer dominant. 

I have severe anxiety. I can drive during the day but not at night – I get anxious driving at night with other people. I close my eyes if I’m a passenger in a car.  I now am able to do exercises every day and can walk a mile. But still every time I stand up, I get dizzy and my blood pressure drops. I’m also nauseous and can’t eat a lot. My doctor said all of the test results are showing my pulse doesn’t go below 90 even when I’m sleeping.

I am on eight different medications because of this. I was working from home and I was doing a good job and helping people. Then I had to go back to the facility.

I had a heart attack at 44 – I am one of the healthiest people I know. There is so much I can’t do anymore. It has impacted my kids. This has been very hard on my family. My husband is more stressed. He has to take time off work to drive me to doctor appointments. He is scared. I physically look fine but when I couldn’t breathe, you could see the fear.

I’ve had to change who I am as a person. My daughter now sees a therapist. When I end up in the hospital, the girls are terrified. My youngest daughter calls me all the time when she’s away. I know she is checking on me. I’d forgotten my phone one day at home, and she’d asked her sister to drive around and look for me.

I am not emotionally there. I do have less patience. This isn’t worth the stress – let it go. Maybe I need antidepressants – maybe I just need to grieve the loss of who I was.

I saw my doctor earlier this month and she determined I was not well enough to go back to work. He increased my medications and added another drug for fatigue. I will be out until at least my next medical appointment in early October. I am trying to be positive. I am starting to remember tasks. I’m good at making lists. To help new staff I would make check lists of what they needed to do daily, weekly and monthly. When I go back, I’ll have to use those lists to help myself.

I want to make a difference. All of the people doing the work for me are my heroes. My doctors, my nurses, other caregivers. I am so lucky. I wouldn’t have made the improvements I have without them.

I want to work. My whole life has changed. My heart is permanently damaged – I have a stent. I now make lists – I think it’s cheating but my therapist says it’s surviving. I may not be able to work, and that is difficult because that is what my life has been. I am one of the lucky ones and I still have a long way to go.

My colleagues are also my heroes. DOC employees risk their lives every day going into a correctional facility. We have all been through a trying year. Whether they got COVID-19 as I did and had their lives changed, or they had to fill in for those of us who were out with COIVID, we stepped up to keep Minnesotans safe. We appreciate this taskforce thinking of us and so many others who worked through this pandemic when considering frontline worker pay.

Cynthia Isaacson Wed, 09/01/2021 - 12:10pm