mark pazniokas /
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont at a 2018 union rally. Keith M. Phaneuf /

State employee unions are gearing up for a legal showdown to block Gov. Ned Lamont’s efforts to radically shrink the state’s workforce following an anticipated wave of retirements in mid-2022.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which represents the overwhelming majority of unionized state employees, recently urged all unionized workers not to respond to a survey issued by the administration to gauge their retirement plans and threatened grievances and other measures to challenge the process.

“We urge members not to participate in management’s unilateral and unlawful efforts,” union leaders wrote in a letter to employees. “If you receive a direct order to participate, please immediately contact your union steward or delegate.”

The coalition also vowed to make its own push to improve the efficiency of state services, implying the governor’s initiative ultimately is about sparing Connecticut’s richest residents future tax hikes.

“We will file grievances and prohibited practice complaints,” SEBAC leaders added. “And we will engage our members in our own process, one driven by the voices of frontline workers and by our commitment to make our state a better place for all of its residents, not just the wealthiest 1%.”

Max Reiss, the governor’s communication’s director, countered that the efficiency initiative stems from a bipartisan legislative directive adopted in fall of 2017 — two years before Lamont took office.

“Governor Lamont is committed to modernizing and streamlining how we operate, taking advantage of advances in technology and planning ahead for the retirement wave to ensure we are [providing] the highest quality services to the people of Connecticut at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers,” Reiss said. “The administration has repeatedly asked our partners in labor to participate in this effort, and we are disappointed they have declined.”

In September, Lamont hired the Boston Consulting Group — the firm that crafted Connecticut’s strategy to reopen businesses, schools and other institutions amid the pandemic last summer — to find ways to save $500 million annually through workforce reorganization.

Legislators ordered the study, and mandated the savings target, in response to projections that more than 25% of the workforce could be eligible to retire in 2022 and 2023. Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo estimated this fall that more than 12,500 workers could choose this option.

State officials have been warning of this “silver tsunami” since a 2017 union concessions deal tightened benefits for those who retire after June 30, 2022.

No one in government has suggested that more than 12,000 positions could be eliminated at once.

But with pension costs dominating state finances, and projected to climb steadily into the early 2040s, Lamont and others have described this tsunami as a chance to curb spending and — if technology is used properly — enhance services.

Further complicating matters, nonpartisan analysts project state finances, unless adjusted, will run about $4.3 billion in the red over the next two fiscal years combined.

“With looming budget deficits, significant risk to the continuity of government, and extensive opportunities to implement what’s worked in other states and the private sector, the people of Connecticut expect us to push forward and make progress,” Reiss added.

Lamont does have a record-setting $3.1 billion rainy day fund to help mitigate that projected deficit, and advocates for education, health care and social services have said Connecticut should not pare back core services amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“We must eliminate waiting lists on core services, but also act effectively to fight the crippling wealth and income inequality on class and race which deprives so many Connecticut residents of real opportunity, leaves all but the very rich only a few paychecks away from poverty, and shackles any real chance for sustainable economic growth in our state,” SEBAC leaders wrote.

Connecticut has slightly more than 44,000 full-time positions built into the current budget, down 15% from where it stood in 2010.

Much of that shrinkage occurred between 2011 and 2018 when then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature routinely used hiring freezes and attrition to reduce frequent annual budget deficits.

Even before 2011, though, a legislative panel concluded the Department of Transportation lacked the staffing to complete projects on time, and it has gotten smaller since then. Labor unions also were complaining about understaffing in the Correction Department more than a decade ago.

Labor leaders also have insisted for years that workers want to help make government services more efficient but administrations traditionally don’t welcome many suggestions.

“Union leaders felt strongly that this expensive outside contract should not have happened – that there is more than adequate internal capacity among state employees to perform this work,” SEBAC leaders added, referring to the $2 million payment Boston Consulting will receive to map out an efficiency strategy. 

SEBAC asserts that existing labor contracts require a joint labor-management approach toward such efficiency efforts.

In their letter to workers, union leaders warn, “we will file grievances and prohibited practice complaints.” The former would be heard by mediators selected by the Lamont administration and the unions, while prohibited practice complaints are referred to the state Board of Labor Relations.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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