Ned Lamont addresses a campaign union rally in November 2018. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Fifteen unions representing more than 40,000 state employees announced Wednesday that they plan to seek arbitration to secure special pay for workers who faced considerable health risk during the worst of the pandemic.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition’s decision comes after periodic discussions spread over 10 months with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration failed to yield an agreement.

And while the announcement is an unpleasant headline for Lamont — coming from a key segment of his base just one month before Election Day — the Democratic governor still enjoys significant support from labor.

“SEBAC leadership continues to advocate for pandemic hero pay that will recognize our state members’ sacrifices throughout COVID-19 and the critical role they, like all front-line workers played, in getting all of us through the worst of the pandemic,” coalition leaders wrote in a joint statement.

“All frontline workers, public and private, deserve recognition of the sacrifices they and their families made to keep Connecticut running during the height of the pandemic,” they added. “SEBAC leadership believes the arbitration is a necessary step toward achieving a just and fair settlement for our members.”

Lamont spokesman Chris Collibee said that the administration has tried to stay within the $35 million budget the governor and legislature set for pandemic compensation for state workers, and he left open the possibility that arbitration could be averted.

“We hope to reach an agreement soon as the parties continue to talk and explore options for resolution,” Collibee added.

Roughly one-fifth of the state government’s workforce held front-line jobs when the coronavirus first struck Connecticut in March 2020. For many, vaccines would not be available until early in 2021.

The head of the largest state employee union said many still don’t realize the sacrifices made by public-sector workers.

Department of Labor computer specialists worked around the clock to redesign an aging IT system to handle hundreds of thousands of weekly unemployment benefit claims, said Jody Barr, executive director of Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

More than 6,000 cases of COVID-19 were contracted by Department of Correction staff alone, he said.

“No amount is going to justify the sacrifice they made during COVID,” added Barr, whose union represents roughly 14,000 state employees. “At no point did any worker ever sign up and say ‘I will go to work and bring home something that could kill one of my family members.’”

The Lamont administration acknowledged early in the pandemic that it represented a unique, hazardous situation and that special compensation would have to be negotiated.

But both sides initially put that on the back burner, instead negotiating rules regarding protective gear, testing, remote work and other safety measures.

By mid-2021, those issues had been resolved and Congress had committed roughly $3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds to Connecticut’s state government to help fund various recovery measures — including worker compensation.

Barr said the two sides had some discussions on pandemic pay in December 2021 but put it on hold again to resolve another more pressing issue: nearly all unionized employees faced expiring contracts.

The administration and unions resolved that by April of this year, agreeing on four-year packages that includes a yearly 2.5% general wage hike, an annual step increase that normally adds about 2 percentage points to each raise, and $3,500 in bonuses.

Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority said the raises and bonuses were essential to stem a major surge in worker retirements. Unions also had agreed to major concessions deals in 2011 and 2017 that, collectively, included six years of wage freezes as well as new limits on health care and retirement benefits.

Republicans countered that the compensation far outstripped that of the private sector, calling the bonuses a political stunt to help Lamont win reelection.

But while the governor also said state workers deserved those raises because of their stellar performance during the health crisis, the contracts actually didn’t address pandemic compensation.

And in early May, two weeks after the legislature ratified the contracts that provided raises and bonuses, SEBAC leadership posted an online letter to its members indicating it planned to resolve pandemic pay this summer or head to arbitration.

And while the timing isn’t good for Lamont’s campaign, he does enjoy some strong support from labor.

The Connecticut AFL-CIO endorsed the governor at its June convention, with labor delegates applauding his support for an ongoing schedule of increases in the state minimum wage and a ban on “captive audience” meetings that unions say are used to stop organizing.

“We have all the confidence in the world that the governor supports working people,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut chapter. “The choice is clear.”

Hawthorne and other labor leaders have challenged Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski’s claims that he could reduce all state spending by at least 5% without harming services simply by eliminating waste.

The state’s Executive Branch workforce shrunk by 10% between 2011 and 2018 under Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. That, coupled with more than 4,000 retirements between January and June of this year — double the normal total — have led many unions leaders and legislators to say government faces a staffing crisis.

The roughly 850-member union representing state police troopers, which does not belong to SEBAC, did take a vote of no confidence in Lamont two years ago. That was in reference to the police accountability law adopted in 2020 in response to outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Connecticut state police union has not endorsed a candidate to date in the gubernatorial race.

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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.