Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said in July that CT's failure to budget enough funds for pandemic bonuses could become "an affront to essential workers." Yehyun KIm / ctmirror.org

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With just over one week left to apply for the state’s coronavirus pandemic bonus program for essential, private-sector workers, demand has far outstripped the resources Gov. Ned Lamont and legislators reserved for the program.

Through midday Thursday, more than 313,000 individuals had requested applications through the online Premium Pay Portal, and more than 154,000 of those have completed their applications, Comptroller Natalie Braswell reported Friday.

“There has been incredible enthusiasm for this program,” said Braswell, whose office has promoted the program vigorously since its launch in early August, and who began a final promotional push Friday. “These workers were on the front lines during the worst of the pandemic, making tremendous personal sacrifices on our behalf. I encourage every eligible worker to apply for the funds they’ve earned and deserve before the Oct. 1 deadline.”

Though the deadline, set in statute, falls on a Saturday, the state’s online portal will be open all day to receive last-minute applications, according to Braswell’s office.

Under heavy pressure from the Connecticut AFL-CIO, unions and other labor advocates, Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority created a bonus system for private-sector workers who staffed vital services during the pandemic.

But while the program dangled grants up to $1,000 for full-timers and $500 for part-timers, state officials budgeted just $30 million. By simple math, the $30 million program cannot deliver more than 30,000 grants of $1,000 each.

To make the dollars stretch, Lamont and legislators also stipulated that grants would be reduced, proportionally, to provide some funding for all approved applications.

The 154,000 applications completed to date still need to be reviewed, but that total already is five times the maximum number of potential $1,000 grant awards. The 313,000 applications requested is more than 10 times larger.

Labor advocates — who warned last May that the program was badly underfunded — say that if $1,000 grants are whittled down to $200 or less, it will be an insult to those who risked their lives to keep vital services operating.

The Premium Pay Program is open to private-sector workers from categories “1A” or “1B” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination priority lists. Some of the front line workers in these categories include health care personnel, food and agricultural workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store staff, teachers and child care personnel.

Category “1C,” a list that includes workers at gasoline stations and soup kitchens, was excluded.

Applicants can learn about the Premium Pay Program by calling the comptroller’s information phone line at 833-660-2503.

The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, which originally proposed a bonus program for public- and private-sector workers, had recommended a budget of $750 million.

The leaders of that panel, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, and Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, have called for the governor and legislature to fully fund the Premium Pay Program when the regular 2023 General Assembly session convenes in early January. Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who is running for state comptroller, also has pushed for officials to re-capitalize the program, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, have said they’re willing to discuss adding funds, though it would have to be weighed against state government’s overall fiscal health.

Lamont has been noncommittal about whether he will support more funds for private-worker bonuses.

“The administration will review proposals introduced during the next legislative session and will work with legislative leaders at that time to pass measures that are in the best interest of Connecticut families and businesses,” said Chris Collibee, spokesman for the governor’s budget office.

Lamont’s budget office reported this week that the state budget is on pace to close the fiscal year next June 30 with a roughly $2.3 billion surplus. That’s equal to roughly 10% of the General Fund and would represent the second-largest surplus in state history.

But Office of Policy and Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckham, Lamont’s budget director, also cautioned this week that it is very early in the fiscal year and the national economy remains uncertain.

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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.