Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, and Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, lead the state's Labor and Public Employees Committee. They are set to consider a bill this year that would provide financial relief to thousands of people who received unemployment benefits during the pandemic, but were later told that they needed to repay that money. Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven (right) and Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury (left)

New state Comptroller Natalie Braswell and the leaders of the General Assembly’s Labor Committee launched a $34 million relief program Monday for essential workers affected by the coronavirus.

The program, which is accepting applications through July 20, covers lost wages, out-of-pocket medical expenses and burial costs tied to COVID-19 and incurred between March 10, 2020 and July 20, 2021.

“Frontline workers made immense sacrifices to keep our state functioning during the pandemic,” said Braswell, who became the state’s chief fiscal guardian last week when Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo retired due to illness. “This relief program represents an opportunity to return the favor, offering critical financial assistance to workers who contracted COVID-19.”

The program is open to hospital workers, first-responders, grocery store workers, bus drivers, corrections employees and others who could not work remotely and maintained vital services during the pandemic.  Full details are available online at www.ctessentialworkerrelief.org

The relief effort was sparked by surging caseloads in the state’s Workers Compensation program, which hovered around 3,000 during the worst of the pandemic, according to Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, and Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwomen of the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

Lawmakers agreed to use $34 million from last fiscal year’s budget surplus to launch the relief program. And while both Porter and Kushner said they’re confident it will help thousands of households, they also said it can’t alleviate all of the fiscal distress the coronavirus placed on these households.

“Is it enough? Absolutely not,” Porter said. “But a little bit goes a long way.”

“We posted signs of thanks, called essential workers ‘heroes’ – I’m sure it was appreciated, but it simply wasn’t enough,” Kushner said.

Essential workers can apply to recover a portion of the wages they lost. Benefits also can cover medical or burial expenses for an essential worker.

Benefits will be provided on a first-come-first-served basis, and both Porter and Kushner conceded the program funds might be exhausted before all eligible applicants receive some relief.

The benefit for replacing lost wages is capped at $1,446, which Braswell said reflects the average weekly earnings in Connecticut.

Replacement of burial expenses is capped at $3,000 per applicant.

There are no income eligibility requirements. But lawmakers said they hope that highly paid essential workers — such as a hospital surgeon —  would not seek assistance unless they are in financial distress.

“I would hope that the people who really don’t need it won’t apply,” Porter said.

The program was envisioned to assist households that are struggling to pay their medical expenses or provide basic household needs because of exposure to the coronavirus, Kushner said.

“We’re really looking at the folks who did not have these protections,” she added.

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.