With 2022 looming as a watershed year, state employee unions and their allies are moving preemptively to stop Gov. Ned Lamont from accelerating the public sector’s decline in Connecticut.
Labor leaders and their allies rallied Wednesday, urging lawmakers to reject an administrative effort to gradually replace thousands of state workers with technology — particularly while the coronavirus exacerbates the need for public services.
And with dozens of bargaining units entering or continuing contract negotiations in 2022, the coalition also urged state officials to support strong compensation increases for a workforce that endured considerable hardship and risk during the pandemic.
“This is a crossroads that we’re in right now, and we’re either going to have a robust recovery from the pandemic … or we’re going to fall flat,” said David Glidden, executive director of CSEA-SEIU Local 2001, which represents about 4,000 state employees ranging from transportation planners, architects and engineers to information technology specialists and some Department of Education staff.
“And the key,” Glidden added, “is investing in people, investing in services.”
Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, co-chairman of the legislature’s Committee on Children, said the shortage of mental and behavioral health services for youth has reached crisis proportions in Connecticut, and the state workforce cannot afford to lose any caregivers in this field.
“The first step is going to be to make sure we provide support to the existing workforce,” Anwar said.
And while the need for workers in this field is acute, it is far from the only area of concern. More importantly, Anwar and other labor advocates added, these needs come at the worst possible time.
The state’s workforce is trapped amid a perfect storm of pressures that have labor leaders worried.
Before the coronavirus struck here in March 2020, the state’s executive branch workforce had undergone nearly a decade of decline that shrank its numbers by 10%. Between 2011 and 2018, Gov. Dannell P. Malloy and the General Assembly frequently relied on worker attrition to help close annual budget deficits, despite warnings from nonpartisan analysts and unions about insufficient staff in major departments, including Transportation and Correction.
The 2017 legislature also enacted a statute directing the governor to investigate another major contraction of the workforce, specifically by taking advantage of a huge surge in retirements projected for 2022 and 2023.
Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo’s office estimates 12,500 state employees, roughly 25% of the workforce, will be eligible to retire in July 2022. And while Lembo is not projecting that many actually will leave their jobs, that pool of potentials is far greater than the 2,185 workers — on average — who retired annually between 2017 and 2021.
Lamont, who took office in January 2019, hired the Boston Consulting Group in the fall of 2020 to carry out the 2017 legislature’s directive. Boston Consulting crafted a strategy to gradually cut annual personnel costs by $500 million by the mid-2020s, largely by using new technologies to replace retirees across a wide variety of occupations.
The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which includes most major unions in state government, has pushed workers not to cooperate with this venture and has urged lawmakers to reverse course.
“The Lamont administration did not create the retirement cliff,” Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director, said Wednesday. It also didn’t create the workforce downsizing trend that began a decade ago or the long-term pension debt that drove this effort.
“What the Lamont administration has been doing is coming up with ways to ensure our residents won’t see any disruption of service,” Reiss said, adding that the planned transition also could improve the efficiency of many services.
Lamont proposed modest staffing savings in the budget he presented to legislators last February. And with the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic, the administration has said the effort to streamline the state’s workforce may have to progress more slowly — but will still continue.
But the coming year also marks a state election cycle, and Lamont, a Greenwich Democrat who is running for reelection, is expected to seek strong support from labor again as he did in his 2018 campaign.
And while labor leaders say this workforce streamlining initiative was and remains fundamentally flawed and will weaken services, they add that the dangers it poses have been magnified since the coronavirus hit Connecticut.
The pandemic has placed unprecedented strains on health care, social services and education, labor leaders said. Connecticut also has struggled for decades with economic development and transportation, and COVID-19 has left many segments of the state’s economy in weak shape.
According to the Department of Labor, Connecticut still has about 45,000 filers receiving weekly unemployment benefits.
The Recovery For All CT coalition, a grassroots team of labor- and faith-based organizations — including many SEBAC members — is fighting to preserve public services in all areas.
Puya Gerami, the coalition’s executive director, said these services can’t be preserved if public-sector jobs are lost. And after state workers in health care, education, social services, transportation, public safety and prisons and so many other groups risked their lives simply by going to work over the past year-and-a-half, preserving jobs means providing good compensation.
“We believe that state workers sacrificed everything to keep this state afloat and are still sacrificing everything during this ongoing pandemic,” he added. “These are the folks who are working in the most significant conditions.”
Reiss responded that while the Lamont administration won’t negotiate labor contracts through the news media, the governor has said on several occasions that front-line workers who had to show up for work despite the risks of coronavirus should be properly compensated.
“We absolutely respect and will listen to our partners in organized labor,” Reiss said.