Rob Baril, the president of SEIU 1199, in July 2021 arguing that state employees deserve raises. Behind him to the left is Sal Luciano, president of the state AFL-CIO. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

With dozens of state employee contracts up for consideration and thousands of retirements expected later this year, unions braced Monday for an uphill fight to preserve public services in 2022.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition held a rare press conference to unveil a legislative agenda headlined by two key items: fill all vacant posts and add new ones wherever possible.

The coalition, which represents nearly all bargaining units excluding the state police, has been battling Gov. Ned Lamont for the past two years over efforts to downsize the workforce amidst a predicted “silver tsunami” of retirements in 2022.

But while labor leaders had argued before the coronavirus pandemic that this strategy would dangerously weaken public services, they said Monday during a live-streamed press conference that Connecticut is headed for a crisis unless Lamont and the General Assembly can be convinced to reverse course.

“Our workforce is emaciated,” said Keith Hill, a supervising environmental analyst with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a member of CSEA-SEIU Local 2001.

“We cannot continue to, ethically, do more with less,” said Lisa Slade, Director of Counseling and Wellness at Housatonic Community College.

Unions fully expect that when Lamont proposes his revised budget Wednesday for the 2022-23 fiscal year, it will continue a multi-year initiative launched by the 2017 legislature designed to dramatically reshape state government.

Estimates from the administration and the comptroller’s office hold that more than 8,000 employees will be eligible to retire this spring and summer and more than 12,000 over the next two years. The latter figure represents roughly one-quarter of the workforce.

A survey found about 70% of the eligible workers in 2022 were leaning toward retiring.

The 2017 legislature ordered a study to take advantage of this projected wave of retirements and find options to save as much as $500 million per year.

The Lamont administration has said on several occasions that Connecticut has a rare opportunity not only to trim its salary expenses but also to make state services more efficient by replacing some staff with new technology.

Lamont hired the Boston Consulting Group, which released a plan in March 2021 that found as much as $900 million could be saved annually through this strategy — by the mid-2020s or later.

The administration last year said it believes as much as $155 million could be saved in personnel costs in the 2022-23 fiscal year — the budget Lamont must propose Wednesday.

But unions charge the entire downsizing venture is inherently flawed, that it will decimate services and cost Connecticut more in the long run.

Between 2011 and 2018, as Connecticut struggled to recover from the Great Recession, then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature reduced the Executive Branch workforce by more than 10%.

Vacant posts were eliminated regularly across most agencies to help close budget deficits, a problem that union members say has taken a heavy toll.

And the pandemic only has compounded that problem, they say, especially involving jobs that cannot be performed remotely.

Connecticut Employees Union Independent, Local 511, represents maintenance and other trade workers at several state agencies, and president Carl Chisem said about 30% of positions are vacant because state compensation can’t keep pace with the private sector.

“They’ve gotten so far behind they can’t even get people to come through the door,” he said.

Tina Flores, a head nurse at a state mental health clinic in Bridgeport and a member of SEIU 1199 NE, said many of Connecticut’s poorest, mentally ill patients will have nowhere to turn if a growing shortage of psychiatrists and nurses isn’t addressed.

“The private sector is unable to meet the demands of this at-risk population,” she said.

There are 34 bargaining units currently negotiating new contracts with the Lamont administration.

Patty O’Neill, president of the union representing regional state university faculty, said, “People are working hard to get a fair contract that cements and strengthens public service.”

O’Neill did not discuss raises, hazardous duty compensation or other contract proposals union negotiators have made, but union members did acknowledge that Lamont and many legislators are focused on cutting labor costs, not investing in more jobs.

Sen. Jorge Cabrera, D-Ansonia, a member of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, attended Monday’s press conference in support of the unions but also conceded it could take years to reverse the current mood at the Capitol.

“Is there work to be done? Of course,” he said. “It’s never been easy.”

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.