Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, says CT can afford to give larger pandemic bonuses to essential private-sector workers Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee overwhelmingly endorsed nearly $50 million Thursday in pandemic bonuses for thousands of state employees — but not before minority Republicans challenged their colleagues to revisit and bolster hero pay for the private sector.

Arbitrator Susan R. Meredith ordered a two-tiered bonus system earlier this month to recognize work performed and risks taken by roughly 36,000 correction officers, state troopers, group home workers, nurses and other staff during the first year of the coronavirus, before vaccines were readily available.

The bonuses for state employees now head to the full House and Senate for final consideration. If Meredith’s proposal is rejected by the legislature, both parties would return to arbitration.

The average per-worker bonus is about $1,200, but compensation varies according to several factors, including the level of health risk and regular and overtime hours worked. Some employees could receive bonuses as large as nearly $5,700.

And while most Republicans on the Democrat-controlled appropriations panel said essential state employees deserve to be recognized — and voted for the bonuses — they also said it creates an inherently unfair situation.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature instituted a “Premium Pay” program to reward front-line workers in the private sector, an initiative that was underfunded from the start.

And even though additional funds were added during a special legislative session last Nov. 28, many private-sector workers received far less than the state advertised.

“I feel that the [private-sector] hero pay fell flat,” said Rep. Cindy Harrison, R-Southbury. “Nurses felt like they went from being heroes to literally being nobodies.”

The state originally dangled $1,000 bonuses for many essential worker classes in the private sector, provided those workers earned less than $100,000 per year.

Those earning between $100,000 and $150,000 were offered bonuses ranging from $800 to $200.

But Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority only budgeted $30 million for the program, despite warnings from labor leaders that hundreds of thousands of workers likely would apply. By simple math, a $30 million program couldn’t award more than 30,000 bonuses of $1,000 each.

After more than 155,000 applicants were approved for Premium Pay, the comptroller’s office estimated it would take $142 million to fully fund all of the promised grants.

Though the state budget was on pace for a $2.8 billion surplus last November — a projection that’s only swelled since then to almost $3.3 billion — officials only boosted the Premium Pay budget to $105 million.

Based on the revised budget, only private-sector front-line workers who earned less than $50,000 per year received a $1,000 bonus. That amounted to 45% or 66,000 of the approved applicants.

Those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 got bonuses ranging from $800 to $200. And those between $100,000 and $150,000 got $100.

Though the 40 representatives and 13 senators on the Appropriations Committee vote jointly on most bills, the committee members vote separately — by chamber — on arbitration awards.

Both senators and representatives, though, overwhelmingly backed the pandemic bonuses for state employees in bipartisan fashion.

Sen. Eric Berthel of Watertown, ranking Senate Republican on the Appropriations Committee and one of only two legislators to vote Thursday against the bonuses for state workers, said they simply were unfair when compared with what Connecticut offered essential workers in the private sector.

“The reality is the taxpayers of the state of Connecticut are the ones making these payments [to front line state employees] because we don’t print money in the basement of the Capitol,” Berthel said. “We collect taxes.”

And booming tax receipts have helped push state government’s finances far into the black since 2018.

This fiscal year’s $3.3 billion surplus projection is the second-largest in state history. Meredith cited the surplus and the state’s record-setting $3.3 billion rainy day fund in her arbitration ruling, noting government can afford pandemic bonuses for its employees.

“But we also had the ability as a state to fully fund the [private-sector] hero pay program, and we did not,” said, Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown.

Bolinsky, whose wife is a health care worker, said she went to her job daily during the pandemic “scared out of her wits” but felt “betrayed and undervalued” by the Premium Pay bonuses.

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said many legislators — from both parties — wanted to do more to reward private-sector workers.

Though Walker did not name Lamont, the governor would not support more than $105 million for the Premium Pay program during negotiations leading up to the November special session, arguing that private-sector employers needed to do more to recognize their own workers.

“There was no narrative or play for us to follow,” Walker said. “We tried to create it as we went. We got some right, we got some wrong. We’re still trying.”

If state officials want to find more resources to support essential workers in the private sector, said Rep. Joe Hoxha, Bristol, they need look no further than the hundreds of millions of dollars state agencies have left unspent in the current budget.

The governor’s budget office projected earlier this month that more than two dozen agencies, collectively, would leave more than $415 million unspent when the fiscal year ends on June 30.

State employee unions also have argued state government should be more generous with pandemic bonuses.

When Meredith’s award was issued, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition issued a statement calling for increases compensation for front line staff at the municipal level and in the private sector.

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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.