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CT created a $34M COVID relief fund for essential workers. It remains largely unspent.

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CLOE POISSON / CTMIRROR.ORG
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The state set up a $34 million fund to help frontline workers, like grocery store employees and health care workers, impacted by the pandemic, but only 1% of the money has been awarded so far. Above, Danny Esposito, of Simsbury, (left) takes a customer’s temperature before allowing him to enter LaBonne’s Market in Watertown, in April, 2020. (file photo)

Connecticut’s program to replace lost wages and cover medical expenses for frontline workers who caught COVID has stalled due to a low profile and a complicated application process.

More than six months after the Essential Workers COVID-19 Assistance Program launched — and one month after lawmakers and Gov. Ned Lamont dramatically expanded the potential applicant pool — the state has awarded just $361,122, or 1.1%, of the $34 million budget.

And, according to Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office, only one out of every 17 people who completed a preliminary registration process has received funding.

“That tells me there’s too much red tape,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee. “We know that the need is out there.”

“We’ve got to keep fixing it until we get it right,” said Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, the labor committee’s other co-chairwoman. “Until we’re certain that every worker who deserves this payment has applied, we’re not going to give up on it.”

Responding to surging workers’ compensation caseloads, Porter, Kushner and other labor advocates originally wanted a temporary rule change that would presume anyone in a frontline job who contracted COVID had done so at work.

The full legislature and Lamont instead dedicated $34 million to cover lost wages, out-of-pocket medical expenses and burial costs related to COVID cases contracted between March 10, 2020 — when the pandemic first struck Connecticut — and July 20, 2021.

Burial cost assistance is capped at $3,000. There’s no cap on other awards, and all funds are issued on a first-come-first-served basis.

The program was opened in January, initially to health care workers, first responders, teachers, grocery store employees, and others from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1A and 1B priority lists for essential workers.

But applications did not come pouring in during the first few months, prompting lawmakers to make changes to the program this spring.

The application deadline was extended from mid-July through Dec. 31 of this year. And the program was broadened to include the CDC’s 1C list of essential workers. Among that group are restaurant staff, gas station and utilities workers, and construction crews.

The legislature permits the comptroller’s office to use up to $680,000, or 5% of the $34 million for administrative and marketing expenses.

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CTMIRROR.ORG
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Comptroller Natalie Braswell, at the podium in 2021, with Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov Susan Bysiwiecz.

The office has retained a private consultant to help run the program. It held a press conference and launched radio and social media advertising earlier this year, but Braswell said she fears potential recipients simply don’t know about the program.

Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware the program had been extended to cover restaurant staff.

“If there’s money out there from the state to help our industry,” he said, “I’m going to do my due diligence” and get the details to restaurant workers.

And even among essential workers who are aware of the program, some are clearly struggling with the support documentation required by the state.

Workers who lost wages will have to submit payroll records to demonstrate that loss. Similarly, those with medical expenses will need to produce related documents.

Out of 1,725 people who registered for the program — meaning they formally requested an application or more information — 855 applied.

Out of that group, only 102 people have received benefits so far.

Another 753 applications are pending, Braswell said. Some will eventually be approved, but others, she added, likely will remain in limbo unless someone helps the applicants become “unstuck” and submit missing information.

How many? “We’re trying to assess that now,” the comptroller said during an interview Tuesday, adding that “it’s definitely a concern.”

Braswell said her office has assembled a “triage team” and has begun reaching out to businesses, trade and civic organizations, faith and community groups and anyone who can help spread the word. The state also is reaching out to those with longstanding applications to try to break the logjam.

“We’re willing to go anywhere, any part of the state,” to explain how workers can access benefits, the comptroller added. “The reality is the money needs to go to individuals who need to be made whole.”

More information about the program can be found on the comptroller’s website at https://www.ctessentialworkerrelief.org/eligible-to-apply or by calling 833-660-2503.

Braswell said she also hopes word about the essential workers fund will spread in August when her office launches a second program established by lawmakers and Lamont to assist frontline workers.

This involves another $30 million in bonuses for the premium pay program, which is open to workers in categories 1A and 1B of the CDC priority lists.

But if the $34 million in the essential workers fund remain largely untapped by year’s end, Porter and Kushner said they will fight to renew and possibly redesign the program yet again when the regular General Assembly session opens in early January.

The labor committee leaders praised Braswell’s efforts but said lawmakers might consider requiring businesses and insurance companies — and not workers applying for grants — to provide the necessary supporting documentation.

A more aggressive marketing budget also might be needed to make the program successful, they said.

Lamont’s office declined to comment on the program when contacted Wednesday.

Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne, who also praised Braswell’s efforts to promote the program, agreed that businesses should be asked to help workers apply if necessary.

“It’s in their benefit to have their workforce fully compensated,” Hawthorne said. “We’re talking about people that we called … ‘heroes’ during the pandemic.”

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