© 2022 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Connecticut News

Budget panel endorses raises, bonuses for Connecticut state workers

rob baril, president of SEIU 1199.jpg
Keith M. Phaneuf
/
CT Mirror
Rob Baril, the president of SEIU 1199, in July 2021 arguing that state employees deserve raises. Behind him to the left is Sal Luciano, president of the state AFL-CIO.

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee endorsed significant raises and $3,500 in bonuses Monday for about 46,000 unionized state employees.

The increases, part of a four-year package negotiated by Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration and already ratified by the 35 bargaining units involved, now heads to the full General Assembly for final consideration.

The Democrat-controlled Appropriations Committee approved the contracts in two votes, both largely along party lines, with almost no debate. Though all committees include senators and representatives, legislators must vote separately — by chamber — on contracts.

Rep. Michael France of Ledyard, ranking House Republican on the panel, offered the only comment prior to the vote, saying he thought the package — projected to cost $1.9 billion over four fiscal years combined — was not sustainable.

But the votes followed a robust, three-hour public hearing during which state employees argued the raises would help reverse a staffing crisis and also were overdue, given the many concessions unions granted over the past 12 years.

Fiscal conservatives and other critics of the deal were equally passionate, arguing it far exceeded the pay hikes being granted in the private sector and also would hamstring state finances for decades.

“I stand in awe of my colleagues. I see the sacrifices every day,” said Sean Howard, a union official and one of 4,500 unionized state correction officers — most of whom risked contracting the coronavirus over the past two years.

“State prisons have been a petri dish for the spread of COVID-19,” added Howard, who contracted the virus in February 2020 and now takes seven medications to manage heart complications brought on by that infection.

The pandemic is leading many to abandon public service, union members added. The Executive Branch workforce, already down 10% over the past decade, is shrinking faster as retirements surge this spring.

“Now is the time to honor state employees’ sacrifices over the years,” said Emily Bjornberg, a senior consultant with the state Office of Higher Education and vice president of Local 1588 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Unions granted concessions deals in 2009, 2011 and 2017 to help balance state finances. Hartford lawyer Daniel Livingston, chief negotiator for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, noted the latest contracts are the first wage deals since before the recession of 2007-2009 not negotiated amid a budget crisis.

At issue are raises and bonuses for 35 bargaining units that negotiated tentative contracts earlier this spring with Governor Ned Lamont’s administration. The unions have already ratified the contracts.

The agreements are retroactive to the start of this fiscal year, which began July 1, 2021. They also cover the next two fiscal years and potentially 2024-25 as well — though unions have the option of reopening wage talks before then.

Each year of the package includes a 2.5% general wage increase, as well as a step hike for all but the most senior workers. In addition, full-time workers would receive a $2,500 bonus in mid-May and another $1,000 bonus in mid-July. Part-timers would be eligible for pro-rated bonuses.

The Yankee Institute for Public Policy, the Hartford-based conservative policy group that has been mobilizing opposition to the deal, argues this far exceeds the compensation that private-sector workers are receiving as as they struggle with inflation in excess of 8%.

“The deal that’s been presented to you is going to radically diminish the General Assembly and this committee’s discretion over spending for years to come,” warned Ken Girardin, Yankee’s research director, who predicted it would eventually strip funding from social services, municipal aid and the state’s ability to offer tax cuts to Connecticut households.

Howard Drescher of Mansfield, whose daughter has struggled throughout her adult life with mental illness, said the nonprofit community agencies that the state relies on to provide most of its social services can’t take another fiscal hit.

Nonprofits say their state funding has grown little over the past decade-and-a-half, and since 2007, after adjustments for inflation, funding actually has fallen by $461 million.

While unions and Lamont argue the raises and bonuses will help stem a surge in state employee retirements, Drescher isn’t buying it.

“While many may disagree, I believe that allowing this contract to stand will offer little tangible benefit to the vast majority of Connecticut citizens but will continue to stand in the way of making significant improvements to badly needed mental health and other vital human services,” he said.

Lamont also has taken criticism from Republican legislators and others who charge the Democratic governor, who is seeking re-election this fall, is simply trying to curry favor with his labor base, at taxpayers’ expense.

“Please stop trying to buy votes from the state workers and recognize you have much broader responsibilities,” James Solberg, a financial services executive from Darien, testified Monday.

Wilton Selectwoman Kim Healy called the cost of the raises and bonuses “shocking” and warned taxpayers won’t appreciate these contracts. “They are over-extended and fed up, and who could blame them?” she said.

But Shirley Watson, a unionized clinical social worker for the past eight years at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute in Suffield, noted the relative affluence of many who oppose the raises. Compare that, she suggested, with the many in need of rely on state services currently at risk by shrinking staff levels.

“I’ve noticed a lot of the people who’ve testified against … aren’t in handcuffs,” Watson said. “They aren’t in psych hospital beds. They aren’t in residential group homes. They’re in their … lovely backgrounds. But I’m here in support of those folks who can’t be here.”

Livingston and Jeffrey Beckham, Lamont’s budget director, said the deal is more economical than many realize.

Critics particularly have attacked the bonuses, noting that workers could accept the $2,500 extra payment and still retire before July 1. That’s when more stringent retirement benefits — ordered as part of a 2017 labor concessions deal — take effect.

Livingston said the unions were prepared to seek a general wage increase of 3% or more and that an arbitrator already had approved a 3% bump for the current fiscal year. Labor agreed to a 2.5% cost of living increase only because lump sum bonuses were offered, he said.

Over the next decade, he added, going with one-time bonuses and a smaller inflationary increase saves the state about $150 million.

And with $3.1 billion in its rainy day fund and a $2.7 billion surplus forecast for the current fiscal year, the state’s short-term fiscal position is strong.

“The state felt that the 2.5% was an amount that was affordable and was less than what likely would have been granted at arbitration,” Beckham said.

But former state Sen. Len Suzio, a Republican from Meriden, said Connecticut’s long-term fiscal position is very different.

With more than $95 billion in unfunded retirement benefit obligations and bonded debt, Connecticut owes more per capita than most other states.

“The time to pay the bill is now at hand,” Suzio said, warning the proposed contracts would be “an anchor” weighing down state finances for years to come.

The full legislature is expected to vote on the tentative wage agreements before the regular 2022 General Assembly session closes on May 4.