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Labor advocates say CT too frugal with pandemic pay for private sector

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CLOE POISSON / CTMIRROR.ORG
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Rep. Pat Billie Miller holds signs supporting health care workers at Golden Hill Rehab Pavilion in Milford in May, 2020.

Not long after the coronavirus struck Connecticut more than two years ago, many state officials pledged the state would financially recognize those who risked their lives to maintain essential services.

But labor advocates are predicting the $30 million “premium pay” program the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont will launch next month for essential private-sector workers is far too modest. Planned payments, ranging from $200 to $1,000 per worker, may have to be proportionally reduced based on demand.

And the program also has some glaring holes, they say. Workers who fed the poor, or who staffed gasoline stations, weren’t “essential” enough to earn a pandemic bonus.

“I think that’s a drop in the bucket,” Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, said of the $30 million approved to compensate private-sector workers who kept vital services operating.

“We believe that anyone who took on a risk during the pandemic should be compensated for the risk,” said Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne. The approved $30 million “probably won’t be enough. We hope that the governor and the General Assembly will recognize that.”

At the legislature’s direction, Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office is developing an online portal through which frontline workers in private-sector jobs can apply for special pandemic compensation.

On paper, full-timers in occupations from “1A” or “1B” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination priority lists are eligible for grants ranging from $1,000 to $200, with payments decreasing as income rises.

Part-timers — working less than 30 hours per week — can apply for a $500 grant.

Any essential worker earning more than $150,000 per year is ineligible, as are all people, regardless of income, who worked remotely.

Some of the front-line workers in these categories include health care personnel, food and agricultural workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store staff, public transit workers, teachers and child care personnel.

According to Betsy McDermott, project manager for the Premium Pay Program in the comptroller’s office, the program will have an online application portal next month, but the office also is exploring options to assist households with limited access to a computer.

The initial application period will run until Oct. 1, and the goal is to process requests within a 60-day window, she said.

Once most applications are received, McDermott added, the comptroller’s office also must make a determination whether grants will be reduced, on a proportional basis, in the event demand exceeds available funds.

That potential reduction, which was stipulated by the legislature, has labor advocates particularly concerned.

Up to 5% of the $30 million can be used for administrative costs, leaving at least $28.5 million for grants.

If an average grant of $500 were awarded — which would match the flat grant neighboring Massachusetts is providing essential workers — it would allow Connecticut to provide roughly 57,000 grants.

But the Bay State program, which has a $500 million budget, sent payments to 480,000 people in March and another 330,000 in May, according to the commonwealth’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance.

Massachusetts’ plan does cover both public- and private-sector workers, regardless of industry. It also mandates payments to everyone under a certain income threshold, without households having to apply or prove they could not work remotely.

Still, critics say Connecticut’s effort is clearly under-budgeted — and that’s not the only problem.

To make the dollars stretch, the legislature ignored a third category of essential workers, listed as “1C” by the Centers for Disease Control.

These include a wide range of jobs, but labor advocates pointed to a couple in this category that were hard to understand.

Soup kitchens, food pantries and other community meal programs fall into this category.

Lisa Hagemen, executive director of the Community Kitchen of Torrington, caught COVID in the December of 2021 as she and a small paid staff served most meals to clients. Volunteerism shrank considerably during the pandemic.

The kitchen also serves as a warming shelter, and Hagemen said the homeless also were allowed in during the colder days to stay warm until a nearby shelter opened.

“So many people were out of work, our numbers were going sky-high,” Hagemen said, adding her staff served about 250 lunches per day that winter, almost double the normal level.

“We were open throughout the pandemic. We didn’t close for a day,” said Steve Werlin, executive director of the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in New Haven.

Werlin’s kitchen also served as a warming shelter for the homeless and offered needy clients access to medical services and behavioral health counseling.

“It’s fairly shocking to hear those working with the hardest-hit population and doing it on the frontlines are not being compensated,” he added. “That is disappointing.”

“They risked their lives and they risked the lives of their families to feed the poor,” said Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, the other co-chairwoman of the labor committee. The $750 million pandemic pay program her group endorsed recommended payments for essential workers in all three CDC-prioritized job categories. “It doesn’t make sense to me that we’ve excluded 1C.”

Michael Fox, executive director of the Connecticut-based Gasoline & Automotive Service Dealers of America, also was disappointed to learn gasoline station workers didn’t make the cut — especially since stations, on average, lost 50% of their business during the worst months of the pandemic.

“They told us we were essential workers,” said Fox, whose association represents roughly 500 stations in Connecticut. “They told us we had to go to work.”

State employee unions have been negotiating with the Lamont administration over special pandemic pay. The governor and the legislature set aside $35 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds — $20 million this fiscal year and $15 million starting July 1 — to cover that expense.

But while municipal workers — a huge group that includes teachers, police officers and others on the pandemic front lines — were included in the larger premium pay system developed in the labor committee, they aren’t eligible to participate in the $30 million program that begins next month.

The executive director of Council 4 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Jody Barr, said, “While some municipalities have admirably come through to provide pandemic pay to their employees, most Connecticut towns have been slow to commit to using federal relief funds for this purpose.”

Barr, whose union represents more than 16,000 municipal employees, added that “We are hopeful that more local officials will step up to honor the sacrifices of our frontline members, who took on tremendous risk to serve the public during the height of the pandemic.”

When legislators and Lamont opted not to pick a comprehensive system to reward all essential workers, the outcome was inevitable, Porter said.

“We’re picking losers and winners, right?” she added. “I don’t think that’s right.”

But House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who had to negotiate the premium pay issue with the Lamont administration along with dozens of other items when the new state budget was crafted in early May, said top leaders were hard-pressed.

Once it became clear the full legislature and governor didn’t want to back the labor committee’s $750 million plan, labor advocates didn’t pitch a lot of alternatives.

“That issue did not really receive a lot of attention” after that, Ritter said. “It fell, admittedly, into my office’s lap” at the last minute.

Ritter added he is sympathetic to all those who risked their lives to provide essential services and, like leaders of the labor committee, is open to revisiting the program next year.

“We need to see what happens come October,” he said, adding the demand could very likely surpass the $30 million available. “What was done was done very late, with people doing the best they could with the information at hand. It was hard.”

Chris Collibee, spokesman for Lamont’s budget office, said the premium pay isn’t the only effort the state made to assist workers facing the coronavirus.

“Going back to the beginning of the pandemic, the state strongly supported private sector businesses and their employees,” he said. “Those efforts have included loans for businesses, grants for restaurants and numerous programs which provided essential tools like PPE [personal protective equipment] to those who needed it. This program is consistent with those efforts, and we are proud to work with private-sector employees to provide this additional compensation.”

Lamont also has used federal pandemic relief to temporarily bolster state tax relief to working poor families. Families earning roughly $57,000 or less received a total of $75 million last December and will get another $50 million in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

But Kushner said while Connecticut has done much to help those struggling during the pandemic, it needs to do more for those workers on the front lines or risk facing labor shortages in many key areas.

The state has $3.1 billion in its rainy day fund and is expected to close this fiscal year with another $3.8 billion in black ink. Given these current and projected reserves, Kushner added, there’s no excuse for the state not to invest in a workforce that risked much and — in the case of many households — remains in crisis.

“Sadly, the state of Connecticut continues to pass budgets that coddle the ultra-wealthy while leaving working people to struggle for survival,” said Puya Gerami, campaign manager of Recovery for All CT, a coalition of labor, faith and other community organizations.

Citing a report on tax credits from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Gerami said, “Connecticut recently doled out millions of dollars in corporate tax credits to Charter Communications. So we’re giving away millions to a corporation whose CEO made $42 million last year alone — but we can only find $30 million to honor the tens of thousands of essential workers who put their bodies on the line during the worst crisis in a century?”