Sen. Cathy Osten defending the SEBAC deal. Watching is one of those who spoke against it, Sen. Craig Miner. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The Senate gave final approval Friday to a four-year package of raises for state employees that includes $3,500 in bonuses to help stem a surge in worker retirements.

The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 22-13 along party lines to approve the contracts, which cover about 46,000 workers — the bulk of the state’s workforce.

The House, where Democrats also hold a majority, approved the package 96-52 on Thursday.

“Today we’re living in a post-COVID world, where employees — and not employers — are ruling the job market,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. 

The agreements, which unions ratified earlier this spring, are retroactive to the start of this fiscal year, which began last July 1. They also cover the next two fiscal years and potentially 2024-25 as well. 

Each year includes a 2.5% general wage increase, as well as a step hike for all but the most senior workers. In addition, full-time workers would receive a $2,500 bonus in mid-May and another $1,000 bonus in mid-July. Part-timers would be eligible for prorated bonuses.

The state and unions have the option of continuing the same level of raises for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2024, or they can negotiate different compensation levels.

Osten said the raises reflect the valuable work state employees provide daily, and particularly throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“They are our people, who we count on each day to make us safe,” she said.

“Each of the 3.6 million residents in Connecticut rely on the critical public services state workers provide — whether you are standing in line at the DMV, attending a technical school, community college or state university, getting treatment at UConn Health, driving on our roads and bridges, enjoying a state park or beach, or any of the other ubiquitous public services — you will be uplifted by these fair and honorable contracts,” the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition wrote in a statement after the Senate vote.

Republicans countered Friday that the raises and bonuses far outstrip what households in the private sector are receiving.

“This proposed contract is a raw deal for the working people of this state,” said Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, who noted state workers, on average, would receive more than $10,000 in total added compensation over four years.

“Private-sector employees can only dream of having that,” said Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol. “I don’t believe, fundamentally, that this agreement is fair at all.”

Some Republicans have said the hefty bonuses are only an election-year stunt from Lamont, a Democrat, to shore up his standing with his labor base.

Fazio said it reflects the pull unions have on state government, and that taxpayers will end up footing the bill.

But Osten said the agreements are essential to maintain a state workforce that is at its smallest size since the 1950s, an argument Lamont has made as well.

While annual retirements usually range from 2,000 to 2,500 per calendar year, more than 3,400 state employees have either retired or filed their written intentions to do so between January and March 31, 2022 alone. And that total is expected to grow considerably between now and July 1. That’s when more stringent limits on state retirement benefits, negotiated as part of a 2017 concessions deal with unions, take effect.

Connecticut is facing pressure from the private sector, municipalities and other states for its workers, Osten said, adding that the pandemic has made many state jobs less attractive. She noted that West Virginia recently granted state employees a 5% raise while Arizona bumped pay for its correction officers by 20% and for workers in many other departments by 10%.

“There is ample evidence that this is a fair contract, a reasonable contract, an affordable contract,” she said of Connecticut’s wage hikes. “But more than that, this is a necessary contract so that we can hold onto the best and brightest.”

“This contract gives the state flexibility when hiring the most high-need jobs, recognizes the incredible institutional knowledge on our team, and the work state employees have done throughout the pandemic,” said Lamont spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson. “It’s also done with the best financial interests of the state at heart.”

The bonuses, the GOP argued, are hardly the key to retaining workers, as the governor and other Democrats claim. The contracts allow workers to accept the $2,500 extra payment and still retire before July 1.

“We were trying to get people not to retire — well, that’s not what this agreement does,” said Sen. Craig Miner of Litchfield, ranking GOP senator on the Appropriations Committee.

The Lamont administration, labor leaders and other supporters of the increases have said they believe unions could have gotten even larger raises had they rejected the state’s offer and gone to arbitration.

That’s because state government’s coffers are flush with cash as never before.

Connecticut holds $3.1 billion in its rainy day fund, equal to 15% of annual operating costs — the maximum allowed by law. And Lamont reported this week that the current fiscal year’s budget is projected to close on June 30 with an unprecedented $3.95 billion surplus, equal to nearly 20% of entire General Fund.

The agreement would cost the state nearly $1.9 billion over four fiscal years, according to nonpartisan fiscal analysts.

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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.