Public- and private-sector employees who staffed essential jobs during the coronavirus pandemic were recognized in Gov. Ned Lamont’s latest state budget — but would receive much less aid than they sought.
The governor’s $24.2 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year included an extra $20 million for hazard pay bonuses for state employees in front-line jobs.
The administration also wants to use $42.3 million in federal aid to support working poor families who received the state Earned Income Tax Credit. This group, about 200,000 households, is composed chiefly of private-sector workers. And many of the grocery, convenience and department store employees who could not telecommute during the pandemic would benefit from this.
Still, the overall aid falls well below the $400 million for which labor leaders have been pushing hard over the past year.
“Gov. Lamont’s proposed budget adjustments badly missed the mark when it comes to supporting frontline essential workers,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, who noted that front line workers account for a significant part of the 10,000 residents who died from the coronavirus. “Many have been our essential workers who never had the choice to work safely from home. They didn’t have the option to work on Zoom like Gov. Lamont.”
Hawthorne also said there is no fiscal rationale for Lamont’s proposal, given that Connecticut holds $3.1 billion in its rainy day fund and is projecting a surplus of roughly $2.5 billion for the current fiscal year.
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, predicted Lamont’s response would do little to reverse worsening shortages of workers in many front-line jobs statewide.
“I’m definitely disappointed,” she said. “How do we not make them whole?”
Bonuses will not be sufficient to convince many to remain as health aides, social service workers and others who performed vital jobs that already paid too little — before the coronavirus struck Connecticut in March 2020, she said.
“They need something substantial,” Porter added. “They understand their worth and they understand that the sacrifices they’ve made have not been respected.”
But Lamont insisted in his budget address Wednesday this was far from the case.
“Our construction sites and manufacturing facilities never closed, neither did our parks or beaches, our restaurants and stores reopened quickly,” he said. “Our essential workers were heroic in continuing to provide day care, health care, food and freight.”
Lamont said the $20 million he proposed for state workers would double the normal hazardous pay bonus.
The $42.3 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act grant he would give to nearly 200,000 working poor households would be an average of slightly more than $200 per household.
Lamont also had directed $75 million to state Earned Income Tax Credit recipients back in December from another federal pandemic grant — the Coronavirus Relief Fund. That relief amounted to an average of about $377 per household.
To qualify for the EITC, households generally have to earn less than $57,000 per year.
Lamont added that “I hope employers in the private sector follow our lead in providing hazard pay bonuses to our amazing front-line workers.”
The question of hazard pay for state employees is not solely up to Lamont, however, who must negotiate the issue with employee unions.
The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which negotiates on behalf of nearly all unionized workers in state government, repeated earlier warnings that public services face “a crisis of unmet needs caused by decades of disinvestments” and failing to address the hero pay issue would only exacerbate the problem.
“Pandemic pay will never make up for the sickness and loss that essential workers have been facing since the start of COVID-19, but it is the very least that the state can do to honor these sacrifices,” the coalition wrote in a statement Thursday, adding the state easily has the resources to help. “Failing to fully fund and staff public services and telling essential workers that there aren’t enough funds in the budget to show them this basic respect defies logic from a fiscal and moral standpoint.”
SEBAC and the Lamont administration also will be sparring over the next year on raises for most unionized state workers.
A total of 34 bargaining units, representing nearly all of the unionized workforce, are up for consideration this year.
Lamont and unions already have been on shaky ground for a while, even before the issue of pandemic pay arose.
The governor is hoping to capitalize on a huge surplus in employee retirements projected for 2022 and 2023 to streamline the workforce. Lamont has said he believes services can be made less expensive and more cost-efficient by replacing some workers with technology.
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% to help close several budget deficits. This has left most departments badly understaffed, labor leaders say.
Estimates from the administration and the comptroller’s office hold that 8,000 to 12,000 employees will be eligible to retire this spring. The latter figure represents roughly one-quarter of the workforce.
By comparison, 2,656 state employees retired in 2021 and 2,056 in 2020, according to Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office.
And since Jan. 1, 2,150 workers already have retired or submitted their written intentions to retire by July 1, and the comptroller’s office says that number continues to increase daily.
A survey prepared last year for the administration 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.
Lamont hired the Boston Consulting Group, which released a plan in March 2021 that found as much as $900 million could be saved annually — by the mid-2020s or later — by downsizing and increased use of technology.
The administration last year said it believes as much as $155 million could be saved in personnel costs in the 2022-23 fiscal year as this process gets underway.