More than half of essential workers who qualified for state-funded pandemic bonuses would receive discounted payments under modifications the General Assembly was expected to adopt Monday.
The House voted 134-7 to adopt revised bonus schedules. The Senate was expected to begin debating the bill Monday evening.
Leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority said they had no choice, given the limited funds Gov. Ned Lamont would support for the Premium Pay program.
They also noted that essential workers who earn less than $50,000 per year would receive the full $1,000 bonus that was advertised.
Others who expected to get $1,000 would get as little as $200, and those who earned between $100,000 and $150,000 per year would get $100.
“Look, there’s a negotiation that happens,” Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said during a late morning press conference, minutes before the House opened the special session at noon. “That’s where we’ve landed.”
Ritter was referring to last-minute negotiations with Lamont to bolster the $30 million budget for Premium Pay for health- and child-care providers, supermarket employees, delivery drivers and other private-sector workers who staffed essential services during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.
Despite demand that far outstripped available resources for bonuses — and a $2.85 billion budget surplus projected for the current fiscal year — Lamont has refused to give labor advocates all that they’ve sought for the bonus program.
The administration says private-sector employers share the responsibility to reward these workers.
But businesses counter that it was Lamont and legislators who not only created Premium Pay but who also badly under-funded the program. It advertised grants of $1,000 for full-timers who earned less than $100,000 per year, bonuses ranging from $200 to $800 for those making between $100,000 and $150,000, and a $500 payment for income-eligible part-timers.
While the $30 million program budget couldn’t support more than 28,500 grants of $1,000 each — after marketing and administrative costs were removed — the comptroller’s office reported more than 134,000 applications had been approved.
And then, late last week, another problem was discovered. State Department of Labor data used to determine eligibility had to be updated, resulting in another 21,000 applications being approved.
The comptroller’s office estimates that it would take $142 million to fully fund all grants. The only alternative, under the rules Lamont and lawmakers adopted, would be to proportionally discount all grants by about 80%.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who co-chairs the legislature’s Finance Committee and who will be sworn in as Connecticut’s new comptroller on Jan. 4, urged the governor to boost the program budget to the full $142 million.
Lamont originally agreed to go only to $90 million. After the extra 21,000 approved applications were recognized, the governor agreed to go up to $105 million.
Working with that budget, lawmakers decided to keep grants at $1,000 — but only for essential workers who made less than $50,000 per year. That involves about 66,000 or nearly 45% of the 155,000 approved applicants.
The rest will receive discounted payments when checks are sent out in January.
Those making more than $50,000 but less than $100,000 were also supposed to get a $1,000 bonus. Instead, the revised schedule includes bonuses of:
$800 for those earning between $50,000 and $60,000;
$750 for those earning between $60,000 and $70,000;
$500 for those earning between $70,000 and $80,000;
$250 for those earning between $80,000 and $90,000;
$200 for those earning between $90,000 and $100,000.
Those who make between $100,000 and $150,000 would get a $100 bonus instead of the $200 to $800 payment that was initially advertised for workers in that earning range.
Part-timers would receive $200 instead of $500.
“When we had to compromise, we made sure that … the people who made the lowest were getting the most amount of payment for this because that’s the people who need the help the most,” Scanlon said.
“I think that we’re able to provide a very meaningful payment to a lot of workers, particularly those in the lower income brackets,” Ritter added. “That is far better than our neighboring states have done.”
Minority Republicans in the legislature have argued Premium Pay was a poorly conceived and executed political stunt whose primary purpose was to help Democratic legislators and Lamont win reelection this fall. The GOP said the state instead should have focused on providing about $1.2 billion in sales, income and other tax cuts. Lamont and the legislature approved a $650 million relief plan.
House Minority Leader Vincent j. Candelora, R-North Branford, said Lamont, given his limited support for funding Premium Pay, never should have agreed to let Democratic legislators include it in the state budget they enacted back in May.
“I hope … that this is a learning experience for him,” Candelora said prior to Monday’s House debate.
“Is that really the program we want?” Rep. Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme, ranking House Republican on the Finance Committee, asked from the House floor. “I think that’s a question worth debating.”
This story was originally published at ctmirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror.