Rob Baril and members of SEIU 1199.
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

Labor unions are stepping up their push to reverse state government’s shrinking workforce, arguing this trend will exacerbate racial and gender disparities — particularly involving wages — across Connecticut.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition released data last week showing that Black and Hispanic state workers earn, on average, 94% and 83%, respectively, of their white colleagues, according to 2019 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

And while the unions are pressing Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature to close this gap, labor leaders also charge those numbers are far better than those in the private sector.

In other words, with thousands of state employees expected to retire by July 1, eliminating those posts — rather than refilling them — would only make Connecticut’s overall wage disparities even worse, they say.

“The public sector exists to be a driver of equity, to create access for folks who are left out … based on market forces that are 400 years deep in structural racism,” said Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199 NE, the state’s largest health care workers union.

Labor leaders have argued for years that state government’s shrinking workforce is weakening health care, education, transportation, job training and other public services that minority households disproportionately rely on.

But if those retirees aren’t replaced, the state will have eliminated “many of the best middle class jobs that exist for Black and Latino workers in this state,” Baril added. “It guts the good jobs, which are the foundation of middle class life.”

According to Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office, nearly 1,000 state employees formally filed for retirement between Jan. 1 and March 1. More importantly, at least 2,140 more have notified the state, in writing, of their plans to retire between April and July 1 — and officials expect that number to continue to grow rapidly over the next four months.

Estimates from the comptroller’s office hold that as many as 12,000 employees, or roughly one quarter of the workforce, will be eligible to retire this spring or summer.

By comparison, 2,656 state employees retired in 2021 and 2,056 in 2020.

This trend, dubbed a “silver tsunami” by several state officials, has sparked warnings from labor unions for the past three years. Even before the coronavirus increased demand for public assistance, they say, too many state agencies were reeling from insufficient staffing.

The number of full-time positions authorized in the state budget for the Executive Branch, which includes most state agencies, is down 10.6% from one decade ago, and 22.2% since 2002.

The number of state employees per 1,000 Connecticut residents has shrunk as well over the past two decades, from 9.6 to 7.1.

“It’s not lost on us that the retirements are coming,” said Rep. Gerardo Reyes, D-Waterbury, chairman of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, who said lawmakers shouldn’t forget the pay disparity issues that challenge Connecticut’s public and private sectors. “We have a long way to go.”

According to an analysis prepared for the labor coalition by Steven Pitts, associate director emeritus of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, the private-sector median income for Black households in 2019 was 66.7% that of white households. Hispanics earned 58% compared to whites in the private sector.

And while there still is progress to be made in pay equity in state government, it is far ahead of private employers, labor officials said.

The same was true in terms of the gender pay gap.

Private sector earnings of Black, Hispanic and white women were 56%, 52% and 85% that, respectively, of white men.

In the public sector, the respective ratios were 87%, 60% and 93%.

But while the state is generally more diverse and pay-equitable relative to the private sector, union leaders said they aren’t grading on the curve.

“The state is neither an equal nor an equitable employer,” said Regina Hopkins, a state education consultant for nearly 15 years and a member of CSEA-SEIU Local 2001.

State employee unions are calling for Lamont and the legislature not just to refill positions opened to retirement but also to create an “ombudsperson” tasked with ensuring agencies continue working to eliminate systemic racism, Hopkins said.

The Lamont administration currently is negotiating new contracts with the bulk of the state’s unionized workforce, involving 34 bargaining units.

The governor’s communications director, Max Reiss, said that while the administration cannot discuss those confidential talks, “We recognize that the possibility of mass retirements could have an impact on both resources and operations and that is something that is being considered.”

Reiss added that the administration also wants to make sure “we have a hiring base that also reflects our residents” and population diversity.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

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.