State unions say COVID-19 'hero pay' must be funded

Union leaders across Connecticut want Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly to follow through on talks of providing so-called “hero pay” to more essential workers who stayed on the job during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the first day of the group’s two-day biennial convention, the Connecticut AFL-CIO, an umbrella federation of unions, voted overwhelmingly Thursday for a resolution. It calls on the Democratic governor and the Democratic controlled General Assembly “to provide hazard pay for all public sector and private sector essential workers by allocating remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars for that purpose.”

Union leaders expressed frustration that many of their workers who remained on the job and risked their health and the health of their families during the pandemic have not yet been rewarded financially.

“The bus drivers, you know, were out there and didn’t get hazard pay. We didn’t get any of that,” said Veronica Chavers, president and business agent for the union ATU, Local 443, in Stamford. “We weren’t even recognized and our bravery and our health and all that was in jeopardy.”

The Connecticut AFL-CIO previously asked state lawmakers to allocate federal COVID-19 relief funds during a special legislative session in June to those deemed essential workers during the pandemic.

“We want all essential workers to receive pandemic hazard pay. This would include nurses, childcare workers, bus drivers, grocery and retail workers, building cleaners, fire fighters, police officers, and many others who put their lives and health on the line to serve their communities throughout the pandemic,” said David Dal Zin, a spokesman for the Connecticut AFL-CIO. He said Lamont’s proposal, which sets aside roughly $20 million, would exclude thousands of workers.

Currently, there is roughly $218 million in unallocated federal COVID funds. But Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, said last month that money was being kept in reserve and the administration was still evaluating how it would be spent.

At Lamont’s request, state lawmakers earlier this year reserved $22.5 million for hazard pay. Of that sum, about $10 million is supposed to go toward payments to essential state employees and $12.5 million to members of the Connecticut National Guard.

A spokesperson for the Office of Policy and Management said Thursday in an email that “discussions are still on-going with the unions” about how that $10 million would be allocated.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, said she has not yet received an accounting of which state employees will receive a share of the $10 million. But given the large number of state employees and others who might qualify as an essential worker, she’s uncertain how many will ultimately get a check.

“I just don’t think there’s enough money to go around,” she said.

Meanwhile, Osten said the state’s remaining American Rescue Plan funds will likely be needed for other purposes, ranging from replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund to financially stabilizing struggling nonprofit social service agencies. Osten said she believes AFL-CIO members care about and will ultimately benefit from such targeted spending.

Osten noted how some private sector health care workers and others considered essential workers have received lump sum payments. For example, the state used some of its federal COVID-19 relief money to provide hazard pay to nursing home and home care workers who threatened to strike over stalled contract talks. Also, some private companies, such as Stop & Shop, have provided bonuses to their workers.

Lamont, who addressed the convention virtually on Thursday, appeared unaware of the resolution passed shortly before his appearance. He praised the many union members who came to work during the pandemic and noted one of the “silver linings of the pandemic” is how people better appreciate essential workers. Lamont made note of the extra pay provided to the nursing home workers in the new labor deal his administration reached with District 1199 New England, SEIU, and how it’s “something to build off of as we round the corner after this tragic year-and-a-half.”


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