A labor arbitrator has ordered $45.4 million in bonuses for 36,000 essential state employees, about $1,200 per worker, to recognize the risks they faced staffing essential services, with no vaccine protection, during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The award, which still must be considered by the General Assembly, would allow base bonuses ranging from $250 to $2,834 for employees in high-risk jobs— police and fire personnel, and staff in congregate settings and health care facilities — and from $125 to $1,417 for those in low-risk jobs.
Arbitrator Susan R. Meredith also approved a second tier of bonuses to recognize overtime work performed during the pandemic. Qualified workers in high-risk jobs could receive a second bonus, ranging from $270 to $2,854, for overtime efforts, while those in low-risk jobs could receive an extra $135 to $1,427.
“These employees enforced law and order, cared for the sick, the disabled, responded to emergencies and maintained the equipment and infrastructure that allowed this work to continue,” Meredith wrote in her ruling.
And she added that this work — in prisons, group homes, police and fire stations and other facilities — took place when no vaccine nor effective treatment for COVID-19 was available.
“There was no clear understanding of the way the disease was transmitted or how to limit transmission as much as possible,” she wrote. There was confusion about what personal protective equipment was effective in limiting the spread, and there were great shortages of PPE.”
The award covers work performed between March 20, 2020 and March 27, 2021.
Meredith added that state employees had to adapt frequently, building new isolation areas in congregate settings, devising other ways to increase workplace safety and covering for sick colleagues. And she noted that some died, while others brought the illness home to family members.
“Occupations which had been difficult but manageable,” she wrote, “became far more difficult and frightening.”
The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which represents nearly all unionized state employees excluding the state police, wrote in a statement that members responded from the first day Gov. Ned Lamont declared a health emergency in March 2020.
“Essential on-site state workers risked their lives and the lives of their families, as well as their physical and mental health, to deliver core public services for Connecticut residents and businesses,” the coalition wrote.
Union leaders added the ruling should serve as “a reminder to other employers, both in the private and municipal sectors, that they should be honoring their front-line essential workers in a similar manner.”
They also encouraged the legislature to enhance existing programs to support essential workers in the private sector. A separate round of payments for private-sector essential workers was launched in February.
The Lamont administration did not comment immediately after SEBAC announced the arbitration award late Thursday afternoon.
Both Lamont and union leaders acknowledged a need for pandemic bonuses for state workers early during the pandemic. But they put those talks on hold, first to negotiate workplace rules regarding protective gear, testing and other safety measures, and then to negotiate new four-year agreements with most unions — which had been working under expired contracts.
The two sides began negotiating pandemic bonuses in earnest last spring, and the union coalition filed for arbitration in October after no deal had been reached.
According to Meredith’s recounting of the negotiations, the Lamont administration first offered a $1,500 bonus for full-time employees who worked at least 1,280 hours between March 2020 and March 2021. Those who worked a hybrid onsite/remote arrangement would receive $1,000. And employees who worked at least 200 hours of overtime would receive an extra $500.
The unions rejected that offer.
Both sides then agreed to offer “threshold” amounts for high- and low-risk employees who worked at least 100 hours of regular time and 200 hours of overtime, and then to increase those respective bonuses for each additional 100 hours worked in either category.
The administration’s final offer involved a total of $40 million in bonuses, while the unions’ plan, which Meredith supported, tallied $45.4 million.
What other states did
It’s difficult to compare the Connecticut bonuses with those in neighboring states.
New York and Rhode Island didn’t provide pandemic bonuses to state employees, and Vermont offered it only to correction officers, Meredith noted.
New Hampshire’s premium pay ranges from $2,400 to $6,300 per worker, and the top amount exceeds the maximum a Connecticut employee would get under this award.
Massachusetts provided lump payments of $2,000 for full-time, in-person work and $1,500 for hybrid work, Meredith wrote. This tops what most of Connecticut’s low-risk workers would receive but is slightly below the top baseline grant for high-risk workers here.
Meredith added that “Maine paid an hourly increase, which resulted in higher payments than are offered here.”
Lamont and the Connecticut legislature reserved $35 million in federal pandemic grants to cover premium pay for state employees and another $29 million to support other wage payouts. In addition, the state’s rainy day fund holds a record-setting $3.3 billion, while the current fiscal year is on pace for a $3.2 billion surplus, which would be the second-largest in state history.
“As the evidence makes clear,” Meredith wrote, “the state has the ability to pay for pandemic pay.”
The arbitrator also defended the unions’ last best offer by noting Connecticut — and most of the nation — experienced high inflation in 2022. The Consumer Price Index hit a 40-year high last June, reaching 9%.
“Rising prices for gas and food have had an impact on personal budgets,” she wrote. “Thus, the payment received in 2023 will be less in real income than it would have been had it been received in 2020.”