Connecticut will offer $1,000 signing bonuses to long-term jobless who accept full-time employment, but it is not quite ready to reinstate a search-for-work requirement as a condition of unemployment benefits, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday.
Lamont’s dangling a carrot to entice the hesitant back to work comes as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations fall, vaccinations are widely available, and all state-imposed restrictions on business are ending Wednesday, the eve of their anniversary.
Connecticut’s labor participation rate was 66% in March 2020, when COVID surged and businesses, schools and daycares began closing. Today, the participation rate is barely 60%, leaving companies struggling to fill at least 65,000 open jobs.
“A lot of them maybe have gotten discouraged. A lot of them are scared, given COVID,” Lamont said of jobless people not seeking work. “A lot of them just aren’t in the workforce right now. We want them to take this opportunity to get back in the game.”
Connecticut was one of about three dozen states to suspend a search-for-work requirement for jobless benefits, but Lamont said the requirement will resume, possibly by June 1. His staff said the resumption would be later, probably by July 1.
The bonus will be available to anyone hired to a full-time job on or after May 24 and who remains employed for two months, when the bonus would be paid. The administration is promising to fund as many as 10,000 bonuses at a cost of $10 million, primarily using federal relief funds.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said Lamont should have encouraged quicker returns to work by cutting unemployment benefits — opting out of the $300 federal jobless supplement, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did on Monday.
“Persuading people to give up one government benefit with promise of another one is a little like a dog chasing its tail,” Candelora said. “By gleefully proposing this bribe to work program the governor has not only ignored the role that enhanced unemployment benefits have played in employers’ inability to fill vacancies, but also the long-term economic impact of relying on what seems like a never-ending supply of federal money to fix our problems.”
Lamont said Connecticut, with an older-than-average workforce, was especially susceptible to the pandemic depressing labor participation, as was the limited availability and high cost of child care.
“I think we have a little older population, and some of the older folks decided they didn’t have to look for work, they’re going to take retirement,” Lamont said. “I think a lot of women were pushed out of the workforce. Schools weren’t open. Daycare was very expensive, and they didn’t find it affordable for them to be able to get back to work.”
The first of his twice-a-week televised COVID briefings ended on a valedictory note, with the governor thanking Connecticut for 14 months of partnership, respect and sacrifice since he declared an emergency and ordered business closures on March 10.
Lamont stopped well short, however, of declaring victory over the virus blamed for nearly 8,200 deaths in Connecticut, as well as upending the economy, social and work life, and the education of students ranging from kindergarten through graduate school.
The legislature recently voted to extend his emergency powers for 60 days, from May 20 to July 20, an acknowledgement that he may yet need the authority to react to a spike in cases caused by COVID variants.
At the same time, the legislature imposed greater oversight rules if further extensions are necessary. The rules are temporary for now, but they may become a permanent change requiring greater legislative involvement in how emergencies are declared and executive orders issued.
“They have a committee that can override any particular E.O. they want after that fact,” Lamont said. “So we have a good, fair checks-and-balances. I salute the legislature for the proposal they came up with.”
As of Wednesday, Connecticut will follow the surprise guidance given Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Masks no longer should be required for fully vaccinated people, which has prompted retailers like Walmart and Starbucks to no longer demand them.
Lamont said he intends to wear a mask while shopping indoors or at crowded outdoor events, but he will leave it to businesses to make judgments about their own customers and staff.
“There are still mask requirements in some special situations — health care facilities, public and private transit, correctional facilities,” Lamont said. “We’re going to keep the masks on in schools a little bit longer — those young kids haven’t been vaccinated — in child care. But I’d like to think that this May 19 is a big day.”
There will be no limits on capacity at restaurants and other businesses, and bars can reopen.
Stew Leonard Jr., the chief executive of the Stew Leonard’s supermarkets, was on the governor’s press call, saying his customers are free to make their own decisions about masks, but his employees will be required to wear them at work at least until Memorial Day.
He said about 90% of his employees are vaccinated.
Two weeks ago, Connecticut became the first state to fully vaccinate at least half of all adults, and Lamont said Monday that the vaccination rate for those 55 and older reached 80%, the target for herd immunity.
Overall, the state has administered nearly 3.6 million doses, slightly more than the state’s population. But two of the three available vaccines require two doses. About 1.65 million residents are fully vaccinated.
To reach 80% coverage, another 567,000 people aged 12 and above need to be inoculated, with about half of those in two age cohorts: 16-24, and 25-34. Lamont said the vaccinations for those 12-15, which only became available last week, were going well.
But even with the ready availability and improved access to vaccines, the effort is lagging in the cities, even with mobile vans doing walk-up vaccinations..
Collectively, nearly 320,000 people need to be vaccinated in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Stamford, New Britain, Danbury and Norwalk to reach 80% in those communities..
“Those are the cities where we still have to make an extra effort to get the vaccine to you, to make it easier for you to get vaccinated, get trusted advocates,” Lamont said. “We’ll bring the van right to you. We’ll bring the vaccine right to your home.”