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Essential workers kept Connecticut going. This session lawmakers will debate how to thank them.

Hospitals In Southern California Continue To See Rise Of Covid-19 Cases
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Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Paulette Santillan departs after checking a COVID-19 patient's vital signs in the improvised COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills neighborhood on July 30, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Lawmakers want to thank essential workers this session for the risk and sacrifices they made in the most dangerous days of the pandemic. It’s sometimes called pandemic pay, premium pay, or hazard pay; by any name, it’s a financial reward for the workers who kept hospitals, grocery stores, and other essential workplaces open. On Tuesday, the Labor and Public Employees committee will hear public testimony on the topic. Members of the committee have a nine-figure proposal that dwarfs Governor Lamont’s version of pandemic pay for essential workers.

Victoria Fiorito, 32, has been a patient care technician in the emergency department at Norwalk Hospital for the last five years. Hospitals were first on the list of essential businesses as declared by Governor Lamont’s executive order 7H on March 20, 2020.

Fiorito would come home from a day of donning and doffing personal protective equipment, and FaceTime her friends who were working from home. “They’d be like ‘how was your day?’ ‘Well, that was my fourth body I bagged today,” Fiorito said. Her friends would complain about long conference calls, she said. “Can you imagine? That would be your stress of the day?"
As a patient care technician, she was charged with keeping patients clean and washing the bodies of those who had died. The hospital was so busy that she says she didn’t have time for bathroom breaks, meals or a drink of water most shifts during the early days of the pandemic. She makes $17.82 an hour.

Fiorito says she worked 60-hour weeks for the first year of the pandemic, contracted COVID three times, and lost coworkers and friends.

Under H.B. 5356: An Act Concerning Pandemic Pay For Essential Workers, a bill introduced last week by Democratic members of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, Fiorito would be thanked for her essential work with a premium of $2,000. The bill would provide payouts to a large group of essential employees, per Lamont’s definition of essential work, including grocery and pharmacy workers, bus drivers and sanitation workers, and hospital and home care workers. Full-time workers would get $2,000; part time workers would get $1,000. The bill would allocate a total of $750 million to be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The Democrats’ plan is much bigger than the governor’s proposal. Lamont wants to combine $20 million in American Rescue Plan funds from last year’s state budget with up to $50 million in appropriations this year. Essential workers, under his proposal, would include only those who were state or National Guard employees. That would leave out grocery store workers, bus drivers, and personal care technicians like Victoria Fiorito.

Senator Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, believes there’s agreement among lawmakers about the need to recognize essential workers. “What we are going to disagree about potentially,” she said, “is how do we best address that: what dollar amount, what group of workers?”

“Essential workers are sick of being called essential and just getting a thank you, rather than being compensated for their sacrifice,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. His group supports H.B. 5356, and not the governor’s plan. The AFL-CIO joined with Recovery For All, a coalition of organized labor, social justice advocates and progressive faith organizations, to propose a pandemic premium of $1 an hour for all essential workers. Hawthorne said under those calculations, most full-time workers would have gotten $2,000.

The American Rescue Plan allowed states to use federal pandemic assistance to reward workers. States can choose to pay essential workers up to $13 an hour under ARPA guidance. But they don’t have to. How much per person and which essential workers get the reward is also up to the state.

Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, who co-sponsored H.B. 5356, says he’s optimistic about an agreement between the legislature and the governor but believes the price tag will inevitably change. “What you start with is never what you end with,” Winkler said.

The AFL-CIO’s Hawthorne says in a year with the largest budget surplus in recent memory, it’s a matter of political will, not price tag. “It’s about priorities, it’s not about affordability,” he said.

Liz Funk, communications director at Recovery For All, said her group was born out of the realization that pandemic outcomes fell along racial and income lines. “This isn’t just an opportunity to give people an extra $2,000, it’s an opportunity for us to realize that [essential work] is the center of the economy,” Funk said.