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CT Essential Worker Relief embroiled in debate over who owes ‘heroes’ – Hartford Courant

More than 134,000 nurses, supermarket workers and other essential workers are locked in a three-way debate, waiting to learn next week whether they will receive the full $1,000 in bonuses that state officials announced last summer for filling essential services when COVID-19 first hit Connecticut.

After agreeing to boost “premium pay” funding – but still only enough to cover 70% of bonus costs – Governor Ned Lamont says the state has done its part. Now the governor wants more private employers to follow suit.

But the business community says it has already handed out more raises and bonuses than it can afford to stave off staff shortages and a rising minimum wage.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest union coalition says that while both the public and private sectors owe these heroes a debt, the state not only launched the scheme, but is sitting on mountains of cash that could cover the bill almost 30 times over.

“The governor should lead by example. The $1,000 is the least we do,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut chapter of the Labor Coalition. “They were made ‘essential’ by his pen. He should sign [bonus] Checks with the same pen.”

Hawthorne is referring to the healthcare, hospitality and other key industries that Lamont — via executive order — exempted from closure immediately after the pandemic hit Connecticut in March 2020.

The implication of this order, Hawthorne said, was clear: those employees were expected to risk their safety and that of their families for the greater good. And because of this order, many employers ordered their employees to work overtime week after week, or in some cases for months at a time.

Since then, Lamont and lawmakers have struggled to find consensus on how to reward these workers, whom they often call “heroes.”

After rejecting a very expensive $750 million proposal that would provide $2,000 in bonuses for public and private sector workers, Lamont and leading lawmakers agreed on a private-sector-only plan, dubbed “Premium Pay.” got known.

The state advertised $1,000 in bonuses for full-time employees earning less than $100,000 a year. Payments between $800 and $200 for those earning between $100,000 and $150,000 annually; and $500 for key part-time employees.

But officials budgeted just $30 million – well below any indication of demand – and stipulated that all grants would be cut proportionately if funding proved insufficient.

More than 134,000 applications were approved, and all grants would have to be cut by 77% to fit within the $30 million budget. That means someone who qualified for $1,000 would receive $232.67. A $200 bonus would become $46.53.

The Office of the State Comptroller estimates that it would cost an additional $100 million to eliminate pro-rata and provide full bonuses. But Lamont would only agree to add $60 million last week. The General Assembly is expected to vote on the additional funds in a special session next week, with the bonus checks to be issued in January.

But even as Premium Pay rebates were announced last week, Lamont forecast a whopping $2.85 billion in surplus — about an eighth of the state’s total General Fund.

Why can’t the state forfeit $100 million, 4% of that surplus, to reward its “heroes”? asked Hawthorne. “It’s not a question of affordability. It’s a matter of priorities.”

The governor wants as much surplus as possible to be used to pay off the state’s massive unfunded obligations, which have accumulated over decades and currently total $88 billion.

And he’s also made it clear that he believes employers share the responsibility for rewarding private-sector workers.

In his February 2022 state-of-the-state address, Lamont, who would propose a wide range of tax cuts and then approve more than $650 million worth of relief, said, “I hope private sector employers follow ours.” Example in providing hazard pay awards to our amazing frontline workers.”

Lamont budget spokesman Chris Collibee added that the state — in the public and private sectors — also has expanded access to COVID-19 testing, protective equipment and vaccines, while making unprecedented investments in workforce development to combat unemployment.

But while the government says the state has done its part, the state’s largest business coalition says employers have, too.

Many companies have raised wages and offered bonuses as they grapple with widespread labor shortages that have been occurring since the pandemic began, said Chris DiPentima, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

Businesses are also under pressure annually from state minimum wage increases mandated by Lamont and the legislature in 2019. Since then, the wage floor has gradually increased from $10.10 to $14 an hour. And it rises to $15 on June 1st.

DiPentima noted that Lamont and lawmakers still have more than $100 million in unallocated federal pandemic assistance that Congress has allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“While we appreciate the intention of the state [Premium Pay] program, we believe Connecticut’s allocation of federal dollars for pandemic assistance represents the most appropriate funding source,” he said.

The governor and lawmakers are still debating how any additional funds added to the $30 million premium pay program would be divided. But adding just $60 million to the program, state officials concede, will not be enough to bring bonuses to announced levels for all 134,010 admitted applicants.

AFL-CIO Vice President Shellye Davis had urged state officials to use the special session to address some glaring omissions in the list of workers eligible to claim a bounty.

This did not apply to gas station attendants and paid workers in soup kitchens and other food services for the poor.

While Hawthorne acknowledged such an expansion is unlikely, he urged state officials Tuesday not to at least not downsize the program. He specifically warned of last-minute changes to eligibility rules that would disqualify workers who already meet the criteria for bonuses.

State officials hoping to stretch a limited bonus program budget may seek to disqualify workers at the higher end of the pay scale, such as those who make more than $100,000 a year but still make less than $150,000, Hawthorne said.

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But that could disqualify some nurses and others who risked heavy exposure to COVID-19 in crowded hospitals months before vaccines were available.

“We’re talking about people holding the hands of our loved ones who were dying because we couldn’t get to the hospitals,” he said.

Both Collibee and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said final adjustments to the Premium Pay program are still being negotiated, but no one has proposed retrospectively tightening eligibility requirements.

Both Looney and State Comptroller-elect Sean Scanlon, who has also lobbied for full funding of the pandemic bonuses, have said the pandemic compensation debate could spill over into the regular 2023 General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 4.

But for next week’s special session, Scanlon said the agenda for the program’s supporters is simple.

“Get the money to the people who need it most,” he said. “I think we’re going to work with whatever we have to work with.”

Keith M. Phaneuf is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (https://ctmirror.org/ ). Copyright 2022 © The Connecticut Mirror.

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