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At least 248,000 private-sector workers filed for pandemic bonuses

Natalie Braswell, at the podium, with Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov Susan Bysiwiecz. Braswell said Monday that approximately 248,000 people have filed for essential worker relief.
Natalie Braswell, at the podium, with Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov Susan Bysiwiecz. Braswell said Monday that approximately 248,000 people have filed for essential worker relief.

The state comptroller’s office will review at least 248,000 applications for pandemic bonuses but some of those requests are incomplete and it could be months before it’s clear how many private-sector workers will receive them — and how much they’ll get.

What appears certain, however, is that employees at grocery stores, nursing homes and other vital businesses will get far less than the $1,000 advertised — unless the legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont add significantly more funds to the program.

The latest tally on the pandemic bonuses was reported Monday by Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office.

“We called these people heroes and we need to get them as much of the payment as we promised them as possible,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Finance Committee.

Between the Aug. 5 launch and Saturday’s deadline, more than 190,000 workers completed applications on the state’s Premium Pay Portal.

Another 58,000 workers completed a portion of their applications, but had not uploaded supporting documents before Saturday’s deadline arrived.

Heavy demand crashed the website and caused numerous IT challenges at times during the two-month application window. More than 359,000 accounts were opened on the portal, though many were duplicative as users often re-filed to work around website problems, said Braswell’s spokesman Tyler Van Buren.

Braswell announced Monday that the state would give tens of thousands of workers who provided at least a baseline level of information another chance to resolve their applications.

But it’s difficult to project how many workers ultimately will receive bonuses, Van Buren said.

Some workers may have filed incomplete applications because of website issues. Others may have abandoned their applications mid-process after realizing they were ineligible. Others who completed their applications also may have misunderstood eligibility rules.

Lamont and the legislature agreed in May to offer bonuses to private-sector workers from occupations in categories “1A” or “1B” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination priority lists.

They touted $1,000 bonuses to full-time essential workers who earned $100,000 or less. Those earning more than $100,000 but less than $150,000 were eligible for grants on a sliding scale, starting as low as $200. Part-timers — working fewer than 30 hours per week — could apply for $500.

But the governor and legislature approved just $30 million for Premium Pay, almost immediately sparking warnings from labor advocates that it was woefully under-funded.

Up to 5% of the $30 million program budget was earmarked for marketing and administrative costs, leaving $28.5 million for grants. By simple math, the program could not deliver more than 28,500 grants of $1,000 each.

To make the dollars stretch, the Lamont administration and lawmakers stipulated that all bonuses would be reduced proportionally if demand exceeded supply.

The comptroller’s office has 60 business days to review an application once it has been filed.

But because workers who partially completed applications will be given an opportunity to add information, the overall review time is expected to extend well into the winter, Van Buren said. Payments aren’t scheduled to go out before January.

Braswell will not announce specifics on any proportional reduction of grants until all applications are reviewed, Van Buren added.

But the roughly 248,000 applications that were either fully or partially completed is more than eight times the maximum number of $1,000 bonuses the program could award based on its current budget. But it also remains unclear how many completed applications might be rejected because criteria were not met.

Scanlon, who is running for state comptroller, first announced in late August that state officials should expand the Premium Pay budget.

The co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Labor Committee, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, and Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, have said it would be insulting to essential workers not to deliver the full grants promised.

The Labor Committee originally proposed a larger bonus system, covering both public and private sector workers, with a massive, $750 million budget.

But neither Lamont nor a majority of the legislature would back that expenditure.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said last week they would support a special session after the November elections to bolster the program budget somewhat.

But Lamont’s office has declined to say whether the governor supports adding more funds for the program.

The Lamont administration also has been negotiating pandemic bonuses for unionized state workers since last spring. No deal had been reached as of Monday.

Unions told their members they would go to arbitration if the matter wasn’t resolved by summer’s end. But while that deadline has passed, labor has not gone to arbitration yet.

Ritter and Looney have conceded it’s unlikely the legislature would add enough funds to deliver the full $1,000 bonuses advertised to private-sector workers given the high demand for the benefits. But they said the program budget could be enlarged considerably.

“I’m confident that we can get together as a legislature and the governor on a plan that works and pass it before the first of the year,” said Scanlon, who said he expects to release a new proposal in the coming weeks.

Braswell also encouraged lawmakers to put more funds into Premium Pay.

“It’s clear given the interest in the program that many workers across the state are in need of relief,” the comptroller said. While this program is one tool to get essential workers some immediate help early next year, I hope this coming session brings more lasting reforms that workers can depend on year after year.”

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