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Lamont defends deal with state employees as way to preserve services

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Gov. Ned Lamont held a virtual press conference Tuesday.

Gov. Ned Lamont defended raises and bonuses Tuesday that could boost state employees’ pay close to 7% this year, calling them vital to the state’s ability to recruit talent and preserve services amidst high inflation.

But the Democratic governor also confirmed that workers could accept $2,500 of the $3,500 in bonuses offered under a tentative contract deal — and still retire before more stringent pension benefits take effect on July 1.

“I want a salary structure that allows me to recruit … the best and brightest,” Lamont said during a late afternoon, online press conference. “That’s not always easy.”

Lamont inherited an Executive Branch workforce in 2019 that already was down 10% from 2010 levels. Couple that with two years of a coronavirus pandemic and inflation that topped 7% in 2021, and keeping state workers has become challenging, he said.

But Republicans said the governor’s tentative agreements with more than 30 state employee bargaining units are little more than an election-year stunt to buy votes.

“Governor Lamont justified these bonuses as a means to retain workers,” House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said. “For us now to be told these workers can receive the bonuses even when they retire demonstrates that the governor either made a bad deal for the taxpayers or misled the public to avoid the critical fallout of this lucrative political deal.”

The CT Mirror first reported on March 8 that Lamont had negotiated new wage agreements with roughly 43,000 unionized state employees — covering the bulk of the state’s workforce.

Each bargaining unit received a three-year deal, retroactive to last July 1, that includes a 2.5% general wage increase, a step hike for all employees except the most experienced, and a two-stage bonus.

Workers get a $2,500 bonus in mid-May, and another $1,000 in mid-July.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition announced last Friday that all units had ratified the deal. The legislature still must consider the agreements, and is expected to act before the regular 2022 session closes on May 4.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said he questions how the deal amounts to a staff retention plan if workers can accept 70% of the pledged bonuses and still retire a month later.

“I think the governor’s being somewhat less than candid and frank with the public,” Kelly said, adding that workers in the private sector aren’t enjoying compensation hikes close to those state employees would receive.

Lamont acknowledged that step increases would add roughly another 2 percentage points to workers’ pay, while the bonuses represent a one-time hike of about 3%. Coupled with the 2.5% general increase, the overall compensation bump for many workers this year is around 7%.

“Connecticut families aren’t getting anything out of this,” Kelly added. “The only thing the middle class is getting here is the bill.”

But Lamont says the public is getting to keep state services that are under extreme pressure.