State Comptroller-elect Sean Scanlon Thomas Breen photo

Nursing home staff, grocery store workers and others who kept essential services running during the pandemic would receive bonuses of about $233 each — not even one-quarter of the $1,000 state officials dangled before them — based on new calculations released Wednesday by state Comptroller-elect Sean Scanlon and by Comptroller Natalie Braswell.

Scanlon also renewed his call to provide the full bonuses, reporting it would cost at least an extra $99 million to keep what effectively amounted to a promise to remember and reward private-sector workers who risked their lives when the coronavirus struck in 2020. 

“I think it’s been obvious to everyone for months that there was not enough money and that there was more interest in the program than everyone anticipated,” said Scanlon, a state representative who was elected earlier this month to his first term as comptroller — and who will have to administer the Premium Pay program after he takes office on Jan. 4. He made his announcement at Hartford Hospital, where many health care workers sought pandemic bonuses.

“The comptroller’s office is in the untenable position of having to pro-rate a check to somebody who literally risked their life for our state,” Scanlon said, adding it all would be done “for an amount of money that I personally find to be unacceptable.”

More than 248,000 workers submitted applications, though only about 207,000 were completed. Out of those, 134,010 were approved, according to the comptroller’s office.

More than eight out of 10 approved applications, 108,838 in total, came from workers who earned less than $100,000 annually — and therefore were supposed to receive the maximum grant of $1,000.

About 12,500 more came from individuals who earned between $100,000 and $150,000. They were eligible for grants ranging from $800 to $200, but — unless more resources are added to the program — will be pro-rated downward to as little as $46.

Close to 12,000 part-timers applied for a grant of $500. That would be reduced to $116.

Payments are supposed to be issued in January.

“Since this program launched, my staff and I have heard from countless essential workers who are in need of financial support,” said Braswell, who has been comptroller for the past year since her predecessor, Democrat Kevin P. Lembo, retired for health reasons. “The initial approval numbers show the scale of that need, with tens of thousands of front-line workers meeting the criteria for assistance. I encourage lawmakers to explore all opportunities to expand funding for the program and deliver as much help as possible to those who sacrificed on our behalf during the pandemic.”

Even as Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly approved the program in May, labor advocates warned the $30 million budget they assigned to it was woefully inadequate.

Up to 5% of the $30 million program budget was earmarked for marketing and administrative costs, leaving $28.5 million for grants. By simple math, the program could not deliver more than 28,500 grants of $1,000 each.

The legislature’s Labor Committee had recommended a $750 million program that was expected to provide hundreds of thousands of public- and private-sector workers with grants up to $2,000 per person. But that idea lacked support from Lamont and from the full legislature.

Unionized state employees are taking the Lamont administration to arbitration on Dec. 16 to argue for special pandemic bonuses.

Labor leaders here also pointed to neighboring Massachusetts, which budgeted $500 million for pandemic bonuses. The Bay State had sent $500 payments to 480,000 people in March and another 330,000 in May, according to the commonwealth’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance.

To make the dollars stretch, the Lamont administration and lawmakers stipulated that all bonuses would be reduced proportionally if demand exceeded supply.

Republican legislators said the obvious lack of funding for Connecticut’s program showed it was little more than a state election year stunt. It was designed, they said, to grab summer and fall headlines for Lamont and his fellow Democrats but then never to deliver on the full advertised grants. Lamont was reelected to a second term earlier this month while Democrats maintained large majorities in the House and Senate.

Still, Democratic legislative leaders said earlier this fall they were planning to come into special session in December to add some funding, though they didn’t commit to providing enough to avoid pro-rating grants.

Lamont has said only that he would review any proposals for additional funding from legislators.

Some Democrats including Rep. Robyn Porter of New Haven and Sen. Julia Kushner of Danbury — who co-chair the Labor Committee — have said Connecticut must provide the full grants offered to essential workers. Porter had predicted earlier in the fall that, absent more state funding, prorated grants might not be enough to cover one week's worth of groceries.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's estimates for weekly food costs for a family of four — with two adults and two elementary-school aged children — a "moderate" grocery bill averaged, nationally, $252.90 in September.

The Connecticut AFL-CIO’s president, Ed Hawthorne, also has said it would be a blow to labor morale if the state didn’t deliver the full bonuses.

Scanlon did not say Wednesday where he would draw funds to recapitalize the Premium Pay program budget.

But labor leaders have said the $100 million price tag is something the state easily can afford simply by opening its swollen coffers.

Connecticut has a record-setting $3.3 billion in its rainy day fund, and the surplus projected for the current fiscal year is expected to approach $2.8 billion based on a new report upgrading revenue estimates.

The $100 million cost is less than 2% of that existing and projected windfall.

In addition, while last fiscal year’s record-setting $4.3 billion surplus largely was used to whittle down the state’s massive pension debt — which exceeded $40 billion before that payment — it also enabled Lamont and lawmakers to avoid spending huge sums of emergency federal pandemic relief.

As a result, they also have about $1.4 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds reserved in total to help support state finances in the 2023-24 and 2024-25 fiscal years.

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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.