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CT essential worker bonuses could be reduced as demand grows

Health care workers at Kimberly Hall North applaud as supporters show their appreciation for their work at the skilled nursing facility with a drive-through tribute in May 2020.

It became increasingly likely Thursday that Connecticut officials’ plan to give $1,000 bonuses to many essential private-sector workers will be scaled back.

Comptroller Natalie Braswell announced late Thursday that roughly 47,000 workers already have requested applications through the Premium Pay Program’s first six days.

It’s not mathematically possible for the $30 million program to award more than 30,000 grants of $1,000 each.

The General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont stipulated, in that event, that grants would be proportionally reduced to accommodate all eligible applicants.

And with seven more weeks remaining before the program’s Oct. 1 application filing deadline, and state promotional efforts not even underway yet, the chances of demand outstripping resources appeared great late Thursday.

“The early enthusiasm for this program illustrates the impact that these funds can have for workers and their families,” said Braswell, who was tasked by the legislature and Lamont with operating the program. “I look forward to traveling the state to make sure every eligible worker knows where to go, and how to apply, to get the relief they’ve earned.”

Braswell launched the Premium Pay Portal on her website last Friday, but the website locked up over the weekend and again earlier this week due to heavy traffic.

The comptroller’s office and its IT consultant, Public Consulting Group of Boston, worked this week to expand server capacity. Braswell reported late Thursday that this effort had been completed.

But fixing the dollars for the program is a task the comptroller can’t solve.

The General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee recommended last spring spending $750 million to provide bonuses to essential workers from both the public and private sectors who kept Connecticut functioning during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Committee members and other labor advocates pointed to the $500 million pandemic bonus program set up in neighboring Massachusetts, which already has sent payments to more than 800,000 workers.

But neither the full Connecticut legislature nor the governor’s office supported that $750 million proposal, instead substituting $30 million a few days before the budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year was adopted back in early May.

That $30 million was limited only to private-sector workers from occupations from categories “1A” or “1B” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination priority lists.

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.

To be eligible, applicants had to be employed between March 10, 2020 and May 7, 2022 and could not have worked remotely.

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.

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

To make the dollars stretch, the legislature and Lamont excluded 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 some in this category that were hard to understand. Soup kitchens, food pantries and other community meal programs fall into this category, as do gasoline station workers.

The other way to stretch the dollars included a directive to the comptroller to reduce all grants proportionally.

The comptroller’s office would not speculate whether grants might have to be cut in half, in thirds, or by some other measure to fit within the program budget. The office won’t make any determination about that until after the application period closes on Oct. 1, and after most applications have been processed. The state isn’t expected to issue relief bonuses until early in 2023.

Connecticut labor leaders already have said the program is too frugal.

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the labor committee, called the $30 million “a drop in the bucket” and a tiny fraction of what the state could afford — given the record-setting $4.3 billion surplus with which it closed the last fiscal year on June 30.

And with a proportional reduction of grants appearing increasingly likely, Porter and the labor panel’s other co-chairwoman, Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, both called this week for legislators to allocate a second round of funding for pandemic bonuses when the regular 2023 General Assembly session opens next January.

“I think it’s our obligation,” Kushner said Thursday. “We cannot forget these workers. We cannot pretend it’s over, we’re past it and we’re moving on.”

The Danbury lawmaker added that “the huge volume of applications that we’ve seen in the first few days of the program really confirms what we’ve said all along: That there are thousands and thousands of heroes in the state of Connecticut who risked their lives and went to work when so many of us were able to stay home and stay safe.”

Two spokespeople for Lamont’s office could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he is open to considering more funding for the program next year.

But the speaker also said there would have been no bonus system at all this summer had it not been for legislative leaders and the governor’s office.

It became clear early on, he said, that the full legislature and governor would not support a $750 million program, but the labor committee didn’t offer any compromise alternatives.

“We’re always open to exploring stuff, and I’m glad to see the program is getting more interest,” he said. “But the only number out there was $750 million.”

Most legislators and Lamont were committed to using most of the $4.3 billion budget surplus to mitigate the state’s massive pension debt, a $40 billion-plus problem that has put increasing pressure on state finances for decades.

The $750 million proposal was “completely unrealistic,” Ritter said, and the lack of alternative proposals left legislative leaders scrambling in early May for a last-minute alternative.

“But for the work of my office,” Ritter added, “there would have been no [bonus] program.”

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