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Lamont, labor headed for a showdown over ‘hero pay’

Clarissa Johnson of Hartford marches with long-term care members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, during a rally to demand new laws to protect long-term caregivers and consumers, July 23, 2020, at the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut.
Jessica Hill
Associated Press
Clarissa Johnson of Hartford marches with long-term care members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, during a rally to demand new laws to protect long-term caregivers and consumers, July 23, 2020, at the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut.

Hoping to secure better pay for thousands of home health care aides who’ve risked their lives during the pandemic, Cynthia Johnson of Greenwich posed a direct question as she protested outside of Gov. Ned Lamont’s Greenwich home on a chilly December morning.

“Where’s our Thanksgiving and Christmas?” asked Johnson, who wore a Grinch hat while dozens of fellow protestors chanted “Fix the broken system” and “Shame on you.”

But while these members of New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU were rallying for a new contract with better pay and benefits, their question is part of larger one, labor leaders say, and the lack of an answer is producing a crisis across Connecticut.

The state received billions of dollars last year in federal pandemic relief, holds billions more in its budget reserve and expects another whopping surplus next June. Unless state officials use some of this to compensate the wide range of workers who risked their lives daily to provide essential services over the past two years, labor leaders say, staffing shortages will become a pandemic unto themselves.

And if Lamont and state legislators — who face reelection this year — don’t remember the health care personnel, teachers, social workers, emergency responders, prison guards and grocery store employees that couldn’t work from home, union members say, these essential workers will remind them.

“You might be holding our future in your hands right now,” Johnson said. “But come Election Day, your future will be in our hands.”

‘We put them at risk. We put their families at risk.’

Lawmakers routinely field complaints that Connecticut employers can’t find enough nurses, other health care workers, teachers, restaurant staff and skilled manufacturing laborers.

That’s not an accident, said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. The pandemic and the ensuing divide between remote and front-line workers have permanently changed how workers view front-line jobs.

Simply put, the wages and benefits offered in some cases simply aren’t worth the risks of illness and death, she said.

“Let’s be honest, it’s not a labor shortage,” Porter said. “It’s a wage shortage. … It’s a health insurance shortage.”

Porter added that some in government aren’t ready to acknowledge this responsibility that Connecticut effectively imposed on a poor subset of the population.

“We said, ‘If you’re essential, you’ve got to go out and keep the economy open,’” she said. “We put them at risk. We put their families at risk.”

District 1199 made that argument repeatedly last year, winning raises and better benefits for group and nursing home workers, and is still battling for the same outcomes for home health aides. Workers in all three groups are employed by private agencies that get the bulk of their funding from government sources.

District 1199 took its protest to Lamont’s Greenwich home last month to highlight that labor divide.

“People in this neighborhood got to work from home. Did any of you get to work from home?” Diedre Murch, vice president of the union’s home care sector, asked protestors. “Many of you are making impossible decisions every single day about whether to pay rent or pay bills, about whether to buy food or buy medicine.”

Murch said about two-thirds of Connecticut’s 10,000 personal care attendants — most of whom are female or racial minorities — rely on public assistance, while one in five are without health insurance.

The union has asked for $20 per hour, paid sick time, and affordable, quality health insurance. The $3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds Congress sent to Connecticut last year included $240 million for home care services. District 1199 officials say this should be enough for the state to resolve the dispute, but members have been without a new contract for more than seven months.

“Gov. Lamont has proposed and executed multiple programs to support front-line workers and their families since the start of the pandemic,” said Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director.

The governor and legislature earmarked $34 million in ARPA resources to cover a portion of lost wages and medical expenses incurred by front-line workers. Lamont also ordered $75 million in federal funds be distributed to poor working families.

But critics say this is far too little.

The $34 million was a bone thrown to lawmakers who couldn’t convince the governor to alter the workers’ compensation system. Labor advocates argued that any worker exposed to COVID and facing wage losses or health expenses should be able to tap workers’ compensation benefits automatically.

The pandemic sparked thousands of workers’ compensation claims, and legislators say the $34 million likely will be exhausted before all requests for aid have been processed.

The $75 million Lamont is distributing is earmarked for families that earned less than $57,000 during 2020, an average benefit of $377. Porter noted that a family with two adults working low-paying front-line jobs might easily be disqualified from any assistance under this criteria.

The Lamont administration has been in negotiations with state employee unions since September about some form of special hazard compensation, but those talks haven’t produced any agreement to date.

And while one source close to the administration said the governor didn’t appreciate the protest outside of his Greenwich home, labor advocates say the numbers speak for themselves.

Two years into pandemic, ‘Hero Pay’ remains a concept only

Lamont has been reluctant to tap any state funds for COVID-19 relief for workers, preferring to dole out only federal dollars. That’s despite holding a record-setting $3.1 billion in the rainy day fund and with analysts projecting a nearly $1.9 billion surplus for the current fiscal year.

“The governor remains open to additional measures of support, but only if the math adds up, and only if the qualifying criteria for public and private sector participation are clear,” Reiss said.

Some combination of federal and state funds should be used, labor advocates say, for what many are calling “hero pay” — a one-time cash infusion for the workers who risked their health to keep the state functioning.

“Of course, there is no amount of money that would fully compensate essential workers for their sacrifices — but two years in to the pandemic, the state hasn’t allocated a dime,” said Puya Gerami, campaign director of Recovery for All CT, a coalition of labor- and faith-based groups. “We’re eager to work with the Lamont administration to formulate a comprehensive package honoring all workers in both the public and private sectors for their crucial sacrifices.”

Legislators and labor groups have discussed dedicating anywhere from $250 million to $500 million for hero pay, noting the funds likely would be distributed among hundreds of thousands of Connecticut households. Porter and the other co-chair of the Labor Committee, Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, raised a bill last year to direct nearly $400 million for this purpose.

Cities and towns received more than $1.5 billion in direct federal aid through the ARPA legislation, but union officials say communities, in general, have been reluctant to use it to fund pandemic compensation.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said that’s “a worthy discussion to have” but also noted that the coronavirus challenged school systems, left many businesses and families struggling financially and pushed social service caseloads through the roof.

But all sides agree the state has the deepest pockets right now, and that any hero pay will likely come from the Capitol in Hartford.

“I’m disappointed as a state that we have not done this yet,” Kushner said, noting that Lamont and lawmakers carved out $155 million to ease the tax assessment businesses face to replenish the state’s unemployment trust.

Lawmakers are talking about expanding that assistance when the 2022 General Assembly session convenes in February. And Chris DiPentima, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said his group is urging lawmakers to invest more in worker training programs to combat the growing staffing shortages.

The focus, Kushner said, is almost entirely on employers and not enough on working families.

“We’ve helped businesses, we’ve helped large corporations,” she added, urging Lamont and other lawmakers to see hero pay as another investment — one that will keep families off public assistance, reduce evictions and help send more students to college. “I believe we have to invest in the workforce in Connecticut … if we truly want everyone to recover.”