More than half of essential workers who qualified for state-funded coronavirus pandemic bonuses will receive discounted payments under modifications the General Assembly adopted Monday.
The Senate voted 33-0 shortly after 9 p.m. to approve the revised bonus schedule as part of an omnibus measure that also extended the state’s gasoline tax holiday and bolstered winter heating assistance. The House had passed the measure 134-7 late Monday afternoon.
Leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority said they had no choice, given the limited funds Gov. Ned Lamont would support for the Premium Pay program.
But they also noted that, despite discounts, essential workers who earn less than $50,000 per year still will receive the full $1,000 bonus that was advertised.
Still, others who expected to get $1,000 will get as little as $200, and those who earned between $100,000 and $150,000 per year will get $100.
“Look, there’s a negotiation that happens,” Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said during a late morning press conference minutes before the House opened the special session at noon. “That’s where we’ve landed.”
Ritter was referring to last-minute negotiations with Lamont to bolster the $30 million budget for Premium Pay for health- and child-care providers, supermarket employees, delivery drivers and other private-sector workers who staffed essential services during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.
Despite demand that far outstripped available resources for bonuses — and a $2.85 billion budget surplus projected for the current fiscal year — Lamont has refused to give labor advocates all that they’ve sought for the bonus program.
The administration says private-sector employers share the responsibility to reward these workers.
But businesses counter that it was Lamont and legislators who not only created Premium Pay but who also badly underfunded the program. State officials advertised grants of $1,000 for full-timers who earned less than $100,000 per year, bonuses ranging from $200 to $800 for those making between $100,000 and $150,000, and a $500 payment for income-eligible part-timers.
While the $30 million program budget couldn’t support more than 28,500 grants of $1,000 each — after marketing and administrative costs were removed — the comptroller’s office reported more than 134,000 applications had been approved.
And then, late last week, another problem was discovered. State Department of Labor data used to determine eligibility had to be updated, resulting in another 21,000 applications being approved.
The comptroller’s office estimates that it would take $142 million to fully fund all grants. The only alternative, under the rules Lamont and lawmakers adopted, would be to proportionally discount all grants by about 80%.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who co-chairs the legislature’s Finance Committee and who will be sworn in as Connecticut’s new comptroller on Jan. 4, urged the governor to boost the program budget to the full $142 million.
Lamont originally agreed to go only to $90 million. After the extra 21,000 approved applications were recognized, the governor agreed to go up to $105 million.
Working with that budget, lawmakers decided to keep grants at $1,000 — but only for essential workers who made less than $50,000 per year. That involves about 66,000 or nearly 45% of the 155,000 approved applicants.
The rest will receive discounted payments when checks are sent out in January.
Those making more than $50,000 but less than $100,000 were also supposed to get a $1,000 bonus. Instead, the revised schedule includes bonuses of:
- $800 for those earning between $50,000 and $60,000;
- $750 for those earning between $60,000 and $70,000;
- $500 for those earning between $70,000 and $80,000;
- $250 for those earning between $80,000 and $90,000;
- $200 for those earning between $90,000 and $100,000.
Those who make between $100,000 and $150,000 will get a $100 bonus instead of the $200 to $800 payment that was initially advertised for workers in that earning range.
Part-timers will receive $200 instead of $500.
“When we had to compromise, we made sure that … the people who made the lowest were getting the most amount of payment for this, because that’s the people who need the help the most,” Scanlon said.
“I think that we’re able to provide a very meaningful payment to a lot of workers, particularly those in the lower income brackets,” Ritter added. “That is far better than our neighboring states have done.”
Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, has warned repeatedly that discounting bonuses, at the same time the state enjoys one of the largest projected budget surpluses in its history, would weaken worker morale statewide.
Hawthorne also says that pandemic bonuses shouldn’t be viewed as a need-based program but rather a benefit that workers earned by risking their lives to help society.
“It’s worth remembering that Gov. Lamont made workers essential with the stroke of his pen in March 2020,” he said.
“We couldn’t have successfully navigated the COVID pandemic without their dedicated service to our state and our communities,” Hawthorne added. “More than 155,000 essential workers were deemed eligible to receive a modest financial reward to recognize their risks and sacrifices. We are disappointed that Gov. Lamont has not seen fit to fully fund the Premium Pay program and instead excludes many, especially nurses, respiratory therapists and other health care professionals, from any meaningful recognition. I fear a $100 check will be viewed as more of an insult than recognition of a job well done.”
Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, predicted legislators and Lamont haven’t heard the last of what many call “hero pay” and warned them to brace for a renewed debate in January.
“It feels like we’ve forgotten them [essential workers] in large part,” said Kushner, whose panel had recommended a $750 million bonus program that would have rewarded public- and private-sector essential workers with individual grants up to $2,000.
But it also would have cost $750 million, nearly seven times the amount Lamont agreed to support for the current program. Legislative leaders also said they believe most lawmakers wouldn’t back a program that generous.
Kushner said she particularly was disappointed to see bonuses discounted of just $100 for workers who earn more than $100,000 annually.
This group could include some hospital staff who not only risked their lives and worked frequent overtime shifts but who faced emotional trauma when the death toll was at its highest.
“Many may feel more insulted than thanked by this,” Kushner said.
Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said her daughter is a hospital nurse who faced those long, traumatic shifts day after day.
“My daughter has signed more death certificates than I think she ever should have had to sign at the age of 25,” Nuccio said, adding that the bonus discount “changes it beyond recognition.”
Minority Republicans in the legislature have argued Premium Pay was a poorly conceived and executed political stunt whose primary purpose was to help Democratic legislators and Lamont win reelection this fall. The GOP said the state instead should have focused on providing about $1.2 billion in sales, income and other tax cuts. Lamont and the legislature approved a $650 million relief plan.
Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, who was Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski’s running mate this fall in their unsuccessful bid to unseat Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, said Democrats tantalized essential workers by advertising $1,000 bonuses.
“Most will get minimal amounts,” Devlin said. “If that’s not smoke and mirrors, I don’t know what is.”