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CT state workers to get $3,500 in bonuses under tentative deal with Lamont

Ned Lamont addresses a campaign union rally in November 2018.
Ned Lamont addresses a campaign union rally in November 2018.

More than 40,000 unionized state employees would receive $3,500 each in special bonuses by mid-July under tentative contract agreements reached this week with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, according to a settlement document obtained by the CT Mirror.

The tentative deals also call for 2.5% general wage hikes this fiscal year and in each of the next two. There also would be step increases in each of the three years for all workers not currently at the senior-most level. It was not clear Tuesday what the full average raise would be for workers receiving both a general wage hike and a step bump.

Unions have the option of adding a fourth year to the deal, but wage increases wouldn’t be guaranteed and would be subject to another round of negotiations.

The special compensation that would be provided to unionized workers follows 12 years dominated by concessions deals and dwindling staffing levels. But it does not reflect the “hero” or pandemic pay that labor leaders have sought and still are seeking from Lamont for front-line workers who risked their health providing vital services during the pandemic. The two sides continue to negotiate on that issue.

Both the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition and the Lamont administration confirmed tentative contracts with 35 bargaining units — which still must be considered by rank-and-file union members as well as by the General Assembly. SEBAC includes all major state employee unions excluding state police.

But the administration released no specifics, and the union coalition noted only that it features a voluntary prescription drug program that will save employees on specialty drugs hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually.

“SEBAC and our constituent unions are proud of our negotiation teams having achieved fair and honorable contracts at each local table and look forward to the role those contracts will play in protecting the critical public services upon which all of Connecticut’s communities rely,” coalition spokeswoman Drew Stoner said Tuesday.

The agreements, which would affect about 43,000 employees, will go before bargaining units for ratification votes over the next four weeks, she added.

The legislature likely will not be asked to ratify the agreements until after labor approval has been secured. Between now and then, nonpartisan analysts will be asked to determine how much the raises and special payments would cost the state.

Lamont’s revised budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — the first year most of these agreements would affect — includes $171 million in the state’s reserve for salary adjustments.

Tentative contracts put Lamont on better footing with labor

According to these tentative contracts, full-time workers would receive a $2,500 special payment immediately after legislative ratification of the deals this spring, to cover the current fiscal year, which began last July 1. They also would receive another $1,000 payment this July 14. Part-time workers would be eligible for pro-rated special payments.

The special payments are expected to raise concerns among Republican lawmakers and other critics of the Democratic governor, who is seeking re-election this fall.

“The fact that the governor is giving out bonuses right before an election reeks of political payoff,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.

Most of Connecticut’s poor and middle class aren’t enjoying compensation hikes close to those in these tentative deals, the GOP leader said, adding the general public is struggling with inflation above 7% and gasoline prices topping $4.30 per gallon.

“Those bonuses just add insult to injury,” he said.

But unions granted salary and other concessions in 2009, 2011 and 2017 to help close major state budget deficits. Those packages, collectively, included six fiscal years in which workers forfeited general wage and step increases — though they did receive lump sum payments in two of those six years.

All three concessions packages also increase health care costs for workers, while two of the three tightened pension and retirement health care benefits.

In addition to those changes, unions also have allowed state officials twice to refinance required payments into the state employees pension fund, reducing costs to state government over the short term while boosting debt overall and shifting more expenses into the 2030s and 2040s.

“State workers have sacrificed during difficult financial times, but this agreement comes when the state is flush and the state’s 13 billionaires have accumulated more than $13 billion since the start of the pandemic — all while the state’s upside-down tax structure continues to overburden the working class and the ultra-wealthy fail to pay their fair share,” SEBAC wrote in a statement Tuesday.

Governors and legislatures also have reduced the state workforce considerably to help close budget deficits, and unions charge this has left many departments and agencies understaffed.

The number of full-time positions authorized in the state budget for the Executive Branch, which includes most state agencies, is down 10.6% from one decade ago, and 22.2% since 2002.

The tentative contracts also remove a potential source of friction between the Democratic governor and labor before Lamont’s reelection campaign shifts into high gear this summer.

“The Lamont administration is pleased to have reached this tentative agreement that honors the state’s fiscal priorities through positive and productive negotiations with representatives of our state’s dedicated workforce,” Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director, wrote in a statement. “The process for ratification by SEBAC will now begin, and it is a process we will respect. Governor Lamont is grateful for the work and commitment of our state employees, and further details on the agreement will be provided upon ratification and submitted to the Connecticut General Assembly for final approval.”

Lamont has had a mixed relationship with labor during his first three years in office.

While Lamont has won praise supporting minimum wage hikes and a paid family and medical leave program, unions have criticized his refusal to support tax hikes on wealthy households and major corporations. These moves, labor leaders say, are essential to fund major, long-term tax relief for Connecticut’s poor and middle class.

Lamont has blocked funding for the State Contracting Standards Board, arguing that other state agencies provide a similar watchdog service. Unions disagree and say the board is one of the most important reforms to state purchasing rules following the contracting kickback scandals that led Gov. John G. Rowland to resign amid an impeachment inquiry in June 2004.

SEBAC also has clashed with Lamont over efforts to shrink the state’s workforce, particularly as a surge in worker retirements arrives this spring and summer.

According to Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office, nearly 1,000 state employees formally filed for retirement between Jan. 1 and March 1. More importantly, at least 2,140 more have notified the state, in writing, of their plans to retire between April and July 1 — and officials expect that number to continue to grow rapidly over the next four months.

Estimates from the comptroller’s office hold that as many as 12,000 employees, or roughly one quarter of the workforce, will be eligible to retire this spring or summer.

“In the coming months, it is estimated that thousands of state workers will opt to retire, leaving the public services we rely on at risk,” said Travis Woodward, President of CSEA SEIU Local 2001 and a supervising engineer in the Department of Transportation. “A fair and honorable contract that works to encourage middle class members to stay in state service benefits everyone in Connecticut who has ever driven over a bridge, taken a drink from a public water source or utilized any one of the hundreds of public services provided by state workers.”

Pandemic pay is not covered in this deal

Labor leaders also have been pushing Lamont hard since the pandemic first struck Connecticut in March 2020 to find ways to compensate workers — in both the public and private sectors — who risked their health to provide vital services.

The state received $3 billion in federal pandemic relief last year via the American Rescue Plan Act, holds $3.1 billion more in its budget reserve and expects to wrap this fiscal year with an unprecedented $2.5 billion surplus.

Unless state officials use some of this to compensate the wide range of workers who risked their lives daily to provide essential services over the past two years, labor leaders say, staffing shortages will become a pandemic unto themselves.

And while hazard pay is not part of these tentative contracts, the governor’s revised budget proposal in February did recommend carrying forward $75 million from the current fiscal year for recruitment incentives and to fund hazard pay.

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