Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont stands behind Lori J. Pelletier at a union rally in 2018. Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Throughout his first three years, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration has described a tidal wave of state employee retirements projected for 2022 as a golden opportunity to save money and make services more efficient through increased use of technology.

But as the so-called “silver tsunami” arrives, the governor has agreed to give state employees healthy raises and about $150 million in bonuses to keep experienced staffers on the job.

And while numbers show public-sector workforce numbers were way down even before retirement notices began piling up, Republicans say the Democratic governor is playing election-year politics, reversing himself to appease his labor base.

“We can invest in technology that improves state government while investing in employees who provide great service to our state,” Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, said Wednesday.

“Our state has incredibly talented professionals across our agencies with invaluable institutional knowledge in areas of public safety, health care, child care and other roles which can be supported by technology but can’t be replaced by it,” Reiss said. 

“It’s politics, pure and simple,” said Madison Republican Bob Stefanowski, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to Lamont and is seeking a rematch this year. “Gov. Lamont wants the union vote next November, and he will do everything in his power to get it — at the expense of everyone else in Connecticut.”

The CT Mirror reported Tuesday that Lamont and 15 unions representing 35 bargaining units had reached tentative agreements on wages for the bulk of the state’s unionized workforce, about 43,000 employees.

The deal includes a 2.5% general wage hike and step increases for this fiscal year as well as for the next two. In addition, all workers would receive $3,500 in bonuses this spring and summer.

Bonuses or some other form of one-time, lump-sum payment usually are offered in lieu of a raise, not in addition to one.

Those bonuses aren’t the hazard or premium pay unions have sought for front-line workers who couldn’t telecommute during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Labor leaders and the administration still are negotiating that issue, and special pandemic pay still might be awarded in the future.

Labor leaders also note union members granted concessions to help balance state finances in 2009, 2011 and 2017. Those packages, collectively, included six fiscal years in which workers forfeited general wage and step increases — though they did receive lump sum payments in two of those six years. All three concession packages also increased health care costs for workers, while two of the three tightened pension and retirement health care benefits.

“Unless we encourage workers to stay and new workers to apply,” SEBAC spokeswoman Drew Stoner said Wednesday, “we won’t have the aides, nurses and doctors to care for seniors and the disabled, the teachers and professors to educate our children, the protective services to keep us safe and many the critical public services that keep our state moving.”

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.

“Our workforce at the state of Connecticut is one of the most dedicated in the country, and we must ensure we are able to provide the quality services and needs to the people of Connecticut,” Reiss added.

But Republicans and other critics of the governor charge that from 2019 through 2021. Lamont — though still complimentary of state workers — struck a different tone about the impending retirements.

The comptroller’s office has been warning since 2017 that as many as 12,000 workers could be eligible to retire in 2022. And with new restrictions on retirement benefits taking effect in July, there could be a huge rush to get out the door beforehand.

More than 3,100 employees have either filed for retirement or notified the state in writing of their plans to leave since Jan. 1, and officials expect that number to continue to grow rapidly over the next four months.

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

The Boston Consulting Group projected in a March 2021 analysis that state government could eventually see up to $900 million in annual savings by taking advantage of the projected turnover and investing in technology.

Four months before that report came out, though, unions were threatening grievances, urging members not to participate in management surveys and accusing Lamont of weakening public services already depleted by reduced staffing.

“The world is changing rapidly, and our government needs to move more quickly to transform how we operate to have the greatest positive impact on people’s lives,” Lamont said at the time. “This report will help us do that.”

The Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a conservative policy research group based in Hartford, said it’s hard to reconcile Lamont’s proposed contracts with labor — and the job retention goals behind them — with the administration’s past statements.

Critics also questioned whether taxpayers can afford the bonuses after a pandemic, a 2021 marred by 7% inflation and surging gasoline prices.

“The terms that have been released in the CT Mirror so far do not seem to match the economic reality in Connecticut’s private sector or even the governor’s own outlook on where the state workforce should be headed,” said Ken Girardin, Yankee’s director of policy and research.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said Monday that “The fact that the governor is giving out bonuses right before an election reeks of political payoff.” 

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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.