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High demand for CT pandemic bonus program crashed website

Health care workers at Northbridge Health Care Center in Bridgeport hold signs during a visit by Gov. Ned Lamont and other dignitaries to recognize frontline health care workers, residents and patients in recovery from COVID-19. Northbridge was one of four COVID recovery centers in the state.
Health care workers at Northbridge Health Care Center in Bridgeport hold signs during a visit by Gov. Ned Lamont and other dignitaries to recognize frontline health care workers, residents and patients in recovery from COVID-19. Northbridge was one of four COVID recovery centers in the state.

While other state cash assistance programs have struggled to get dollars out the door this summer, the new $1,000 pandemic bonus program for private-sector workers has sparked big interest from the start.

About 30,000 applications were requested for the Premium Pay Program in its first few days after it informally launched late last week, crashing the online portal multiple times, Comptroller Natalie Braswell reported Tuesday.

But the office already has begun to expand servers for the site and tentatively plans to begin a more aggressive promotion for the program as soon as Friday.

“I think it’s fantastic the amount of interest that’s coming in,” Braswell told the CT Mirror, adding that about 6,000 of those who registered already have completed their applications.

Her office, which was tasked in May by the General Assembly with administering the $30 million program, opened the website on Friday for private-sector essential workers from categories “1A” or “1B” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination priority lists.

Some of the 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.

To be eligible, an applicant must have worked between March 10, 2020 and May 7, 2022.

Eligible applicants must earn less than $150,000 per year and cannot be employed by a federal, state or municipal government entity.

Full-time workers who earn less than $100,000 can apply for a $1,000 grant. Those earning more than $100,000 but less than $150,000 are eligible for grants on a sliding scale, ranging as low as $200.

But it does not matter whether an essential worker actually contracted COVID-19.

“These folks got up every day when some of us were privileged enough to work from home. They went in and did the hard job,” Braswell said, “quite frankly, putting themselves in harm’s way.”

Braswell on Tuesday urged interested people to wait, if possible, for a few days before visiting the Premium Pay portal on the comptroller’s website.

Information technology upgrades to the portal, which first locked up Saturday and stalled periodically early this week, should be completed by Friday, Braswell said, adding that her office tentatively plans to begin its formal promotion campaign for the program that day as well.

“We’re in constant communication with our [information technology] vendor,” said Braswell, who retained Public Consulting Group of Boston to help run the program. “They understand the urgency of getting this up and running.”

The deadline for applications is Oct. 1, and completing the form online can be done in less than an hour. All applications are weighed equally, regardless of when they are submitted, the comptroller said.

“This isn’t a first-come-first-served program,” she added.

Bonuses could be reduced

There is a downside, however, to the initial surge in applications. It means pandemic bonuses may have to be reduced.

Legislative leaders already conceded, before the program launched, that the $30 million allocated may not be enough to meet the demand. Up to 5% of the $30 million can be used for administrative costs, leaving at least $28.5 million for grants. The legislature stipulated that, in that event, all grants must be reduced proportionally.

Labor advocates have said the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont were too frugal with this program, especially considering what neighboring Massachusetts has done.

The Bay State program, which does cover both private- and public-sector essential workers, 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.

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

And if more than 28,500 people apply for $1,000 grants from the state of Connecticut, that would match the minimum amount of available funds and likely trigger prorated awards.

The General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee had recommended a $750 million pandemic bonus program that would cover essential workers from both the private and public sectors, but neither the full legislature nor the Lamont administration backed that idea.

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, House chairwoman of the labor committee, had called the $30 million program budget “a drop in the bucket,” especially considering that state government closed the 2021-22 fiscal year last June 30 with an unprecedented $4.3 billion surplus.

Porter said Wednesday she will press the governor and legislature to approve supplemental funding for the Premium Pay Program as soon as the regular 2023 session begins on Jan. 4.

Let’s do what is justifiable right, and take care of these essential workers who took care of us,” Porter said. “We must respond to that and we must respond with a sense of urgency.”

CT has struggled with other cash assistance programs

The state hasn’t fared as well this year getting cash assistance from other programs out the door.

The Essential Workers COVID-19 Assistance Program that launched last January to replace lost wages and cover medical expenses for front line workers who caught COVID has stalled due to a low profile and a complicated application process ordered by the legislature and by Lamont.

Through the middle of last week, only about $560,000, or less than 2%, of the program’s $34 million budget had been distributed among 138 recipients.

This program will remain open through Dec. 31, and more information can be obtained at the comptroller’s website. Interested people can also learn more about both the essential workers and premium pay programs by calling the comptroller’s information phone line at 833-660-2503. Spanish language support is available.

The legislature and Lamont did somewhat better with the one-time child tax rebate they approved this year for low- and middle-income families. A total of 238,668 households claimed the $250-per-child benefit on behalf of 369,883 children.

But that means $32.5 million, or about 26% of the $125 million benefit, remained unclaimed. The application period for this program closed July 31.

Advocates for the child tax rebate called it a success but also conceded it might have been better to send funds directly to households — without an application process — by using older state income tax data to identify eligible families.

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