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May 25, 2022

CT employee unions eyeing arbitration to secure pandemic pay

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Rob Baril, the president of SEIU 1199, in July 2021 arguing that state employees deserve raises. Behind him to the left is Sal Luciano, president of the state AFL-CIO.

Unionized state employees just received raises topping 4% and will have collected $3,500 in bonuses by mid-July — but that doesn’t mean all compensation issues are settled.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition notified its members recently it expects to enter arbitration this summer to secure coronavirus pandemic pay for members in high-risk jobs, unless it reaches a deal beforehand with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.

Lamont and the legislature set aside $35 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds — $20 million this fiscal year and $15 million starting July 1 —for pandemic pay for state workers. An arbitrator could increase that amount.

“Frontline essential state workers sacrificed their health and safety throughout COVID-19 to ensure that the critical public services our 3.6 million Connecticut residents rely on remained accessible,” the coalition wrote in a memo posted to its website. SEBAC represents most unionized state employees excluding state police troopers.

While the state can never fully repay frontline essential workers,” the statement continues, “the state can certainly take a step to respect these workers. Pandemic pay is that step.”

Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration also has long said the state must acknowledge the risks that public safety, health care, social service and certain other staffers faced, particularly during the first year of the pandemic, when vaccines weren’t readily available and personal protective equipment sometimes was in short supply.

“This funding is specifically for our essential state workers who risked their lives on a daily basis,” Chris Collibee, the spokesman for Lamont’s budget office, said Tuesday. “It is the least we can do.”

Neither the administration nor the unions have said exactly how many staffers might receive special pandemic pay, but roughly one-fifth of the workforce held front-line jobs during the pandemic.

Collibee added that “The administration will engage in thoughtful and collaborative negotiations with SEBAC to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement that recognizes our state employees for their efforts throughout the pandemic.”

Pandemic pay, understandably, took a back seat early in the pandemic, as the administration and unions focused on other priorities.

Not long after COVID-19 struck Connecticut hard in March 2020, the two sides first negotiated rules regarding protective gear, testing, remote work and other safety measures.

By mid-2021, the funding was in place. Congress had committed roughly $3 billion in ARPA assistance to Connecticut’s state government to help fund various recovery measures and had issued the necessary rules and regulations to guide their use.

But Lamont and unions still had one more big issue to resolve before grappling with hazard pay.

The overwhelming bulk of the state’s unionized workforce, more than 40,000 employees spread across nearly three dozen bargaining units, had been working under contracts that had expired July 1, 2021.

The administration and unions agreed on a four-year package that includes a yearly, 2.5% general wage hike, an annual step increase that normally adds about 2 percentage points to each raise, and $3,500 in bonuses paid in two installments between mid-May and mid-July of this year.

The package fractured the legislature, which ratified the package in late April. 

Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the majority said the raises and bonuses were essential to stem a major surge in worker retirements this spring. And with inflation high and state government’s budget reserves breaking all records, arbitrators likely would have ordered such increases anyway, they added.

Republicans cited the same 8% inflation, saying it’s slamming a private sector that doesn’t enjoy compensation close to what state employees were receiving.

And Republicans also noted that Lamont already has said that the raises and bonuses approved this spring were a way of recognizing workers for what they did during the pandemic.

“It’s a way of saying job well done,” the governor said in early April when he first discussed the four-year wage deal.

“When is enough enough?” asked House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.

The new $24.2 billion budget that Lamont and lawmakers approved this spring includes $30 million for grants for all front-line workers in the private-sector — a significantly larger group than those in state government.

Republicans noted the raises and bonuses that roughly 46,000 state workers will share is almost two-thirds of the $663 million in tax relief Lamont and the legislature approved for the entire state. According to the nonpartisan analysts, the annual cost of raises and bonuses alone — excluding related additional pension costs — averages $407 million over four years.

“What about our restaurant workers? What about our hospital workers?” Candelora added. “This governor has prioritized government over the residents of Connecticut.”

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said the public safety, health care and other state workers who risked their lives to keep essential services running should be recognized. But it was Lamont and Democrats who choose to give huge raises and bonuses to all workers beyond what taxpayers could afford.

“It demonstrates the flip-flopped priorities of the governor,” Kelly said.

But a SEBAC spokeswoman responded Tuesday that “those who oppose our agreement and pandemic pay oppose anything good for working families, private or public, whether minimum wage, paid family leave, workplace safety standards or protection from discrimination. 

“Those opponents are using the same playbook they’ve referenced for decades — trying to pit the public and private sector workers against each other for the crumbs they leave after protecting the ultra-wealthy.”

Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said the state should be doing more to help front-line workers in the private sector. But that isn’t a reason, she added, not to recognize state workers who took great risks.

“Many got sick. Many had family members who were exposed,” Kushner said. “People died.”

Kushner and her fellow co-chair of the labor committee, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, had sought to dedicate $750 million — 25 times what the legislature and Lamont approved — for pandemic pay for the private sector. This would have come from the ARPA allocation or from the state’s massive projected surplus for this fiscal year — currently pegged at $3.8 billion.

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