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State employee unions may take pandemic pay to arbitration

Connecticut labor leaders have spent the past two years pushing for extra pay, often called “pandemic pay” or “hero pay,” for front line essential workers who worked throughout the pandemic, and they were successful…up to a point. 

Under the budget signed by Gov. Ned Lamont, the legislature set aside $30 million – called “premium pay” — to pay eligible essential workers up to $1,000 for their work during the pandemic. 

Although the measure was pushed largely by state employee labor leaders, state and municipal essential employees were left out of the equation and the funds are only available for private sector workers.

Which private sector workers may be eligible for pandemic pay has not yet been determined, but during a press conference earlier in the year, House Speaker Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said that state employees would not be eligible for premium pay, noting state employees were “doing their own thing with the administration.”

SEBAC is saying they will make the issue of pandemic pay a matter of collective bargaining and arbitration, according to a May 4 update.

“Frontline essential state workers sacrificed their health and safety throughout COVID-19 to ensure that the critical public services our 3.6 million Connecticut residents rely on remained accessible,” SEBAC posted on their website. “While the state can never fully repay frontline essential workers – private, municipal and state – the state can certainly take a step to respect these workers. Pandemic pay is that step.”

“While the budget adjustment includes funding for pandemic pay for private sector frontline workers, state workers will be seeking pandemic pay through the collective bargaining process. SEBAC expects to be in arbitration this summer to resolve this if an agreement is not reached before then,” SEBAC continued.

During the pandemic, state employees who were able to work from home stayed home, but many others had jobs that required them to be in congregate settings or out in the field working. Employees for the Department of Correction, State Police, Department of Transportation and healthcare workers at various departments and state-run facilities all had to continue to show up for work.

Department of Correction employees were particularly hard hit due to working conditions and a closed environment. According to the DOC’s public information officer, a total of 4,794 DOC employees contracted COVID since the start of the pandemic and two have passed away. 

Gov. Lamont and SEBAC reached new wage agreements for nearly every state employee union, a deal valued at $1.9 billion and passed by the General Assembly, that will award general wage increases, annual increments, and bonuses. But SEBAC and the state’s essential workers feel something more should be done for frontline state employees. 

Lamont had proposed $20 million for frontline state workers in his budget, far less than labor leaders hoped for, according to CT Mirror. If the matter goes to arbitration, it will be settled by an arbitrator who will likely consider the fact that Connecticut is currently experiencing a budget surplus, though that may be tempered by a poor financial forecast.

The original bill awarding pandemic pay to essential workers carried a $750 million price tag, awarding up to $2,000 to each eligible full-time employee who worked during the pandemic, including state and municipal workers.

However, the cost of the bill proved to be too much and would have put the state over its 2023 spending cap, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis. Lawmakers scaled down the pay and reduced the number of eligible employees in trying to craft the budget.

Gov. Lamont’s office did not return request for comment.

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

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