Emergency-services personnel, such as firefighters and police officers, shown here staffing the Westport’s distribution of COVID at-home test kits in January, are eligible to apply for “essential worker” bonuses from the state. / File photo by Thane Grauel

By Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Demand for the new $1,000 pandemic bonuses that state officials dangled before essential, private-sector workers this spring is more than eight times the program’s maximum capacity to issue full grants.

Interest in the benefits has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers. 

The House of Representatives chairwoman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee added her name to the list of officials saying Connecticut must increase funding for the program — or watch the $1,000 bonuses get sliced to a few hundred dollars, or less.

State Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office reported Wednesday that more than 255,000 people have requested applications for the Premium Pay Program, which launched Aug. 5. More than 108,000 people already have completed their applications.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly only budgeted $30 million for a program that offered $1,000 grants to full -time workers and $500 for part-timers. By simple math, the $30 million program cannot deliver more than 30,000 grants of $1,000 each.

Lamont and lawmakers stipulated that, in the event demand outstrips supply, all grants would be reduced proportionally.

Labor advocates warned shortly after the program was created in May that it had been significantly under-funded, and so far the data is supporting this opinion.

The 255,000 people who have requested applications during the programs’ first three-and-a-half weeks is more than eight times the maximum capacity level. The 108,000 who have completed applications so far is more than triple that level.

And the program will continue to accept applications for another month, until Oct. 1.

A broad spectrum of health-care personnel — shown here conducting COVID-19 tests in Norwalk last year — can apply for “essential worker” bonuses recently approved by state officials. / File photo by Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org

Reducing promised payments called “hypocritical”

If a $1,000 grant were reduced by a third — down to $333 — or by an eighth down to $125, it would be hypocritical, state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, told the CT Mirror on Wednesday.

Walker, longtime co-chairwoman of the legislature’s budget committee, said state officials repeatedly have praised the workers who staffed hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores and other vital businesses through 2020 — when, in most cases, a vaccine for the coronavirus wasn’t readily available.

“I thought we were giving them recognition for going above and beyond,” Walker said. “Those people were taking their lives in their own hands. I think it’s really important we stick to what we committed and we really provide them with a real ‘thank you.’ ”

Rep. Sean Scanlon of Guilford, the Democratic nominee for state comptroller, called last week for Connecticut to re-capitalize the program, as did Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

The co-chairwomen of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, and Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury — who wanted $750 million set aside for a much larger pandemic bonus program — renewed their push for additional funding earlier this summer.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, has said he is open to adding more funds to the program.

Lamont non-committal on calls for more funding

But Lamont, a Greenwich Democrat running for re-election in November, has been noncommittal. 

Lamont has said twice recently through a spokesman only that he would consider any legislative proposals to expand funding for the program when the regular 2023 General Assembly session begins in January.

Braswell’s office, which has begun its review of applications, is not expected to issue any payments until January.

Chris Collibee, spokesman for Lamont’s budget office, said Wednesday that the governor and legislature took many steps this year to assist essential workers. 

They enacted a $660 million tax relief package that cut state income taxes by expanding a credit to help households cover their property tax bills. It also included a one-time, $250-per-child income tax rebate and a temporary increase in the income tax credit for working poor households.

Republican minority leaders in the House and Senate have argued this tax relief is too modest given the high inflation and gasoline prices that hurt many household budgets this past spring and summer.

The GOP, which pushed for Connecticut’s first income tax rate reduction since 1995, also said the cash-starved Premium Pay Program is indicative of Democratic proposals — poorly planned and focused more on grabbing headlines than delivering relief.

Labor advocates in Connecticut wanted a pandemic bonus program patterned after the same initiative in neighboring Massachusetts — but somewhat more generous.

The Bay State, which budgeted $500 million, had sent payments to 480,000 people in March and another 330,000 in May, according to the commonwealth’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance.

Initial proposal for larger bonus fund fell short

Porter, Kushner and the rest of the Labor Committee in the Connecticut legislature asked for a $750 million budget, with grants of up to $2,000 for essential workers in the public and private sectors.

Lamont and the full legislature passed on that. A few days before the 2022 session adjourned on May 4, top legislative leaders and the governor’s office agreed to include $30 million for pandemic bonuses in the new state budget.

The program was limited to private-sector workers only from categories “1A” or “1B” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination priority lists. Category “1C,” a list that includes workers at gasoline stations, and soup kitchens and many transportation services, was excluded.

Full-time employees earning $100,000 or less are eligible, on paper, for a $1,000 grant. Those making between $100,000 and $150,000 can receive a grant ranging from $200 to $1,000. Part-timers within income limits are eligible for a $500 grant.

To make the dollars stretch even further, Lamont and lawmakers stipulated that grants would be reduced proportionally if demand exceeded supply.

Labor advocates pushed back hard, calling this way too frugal and warning that scaled-back grants were all but a certainty given Massachusetts’ experience.

“They’re lucky if they get $50 at the rate we’re going”

Porter said last Wednesday she fears the Connecticut program will become “an affront to essential workers” even as state government closed its last fiscal year on June 30 with an unprecedented $4.3 billion surplus equal to nearly one-fifth of the entire General Fund.

“Why is this on the back burner? Why are we looking for funding now?” Porter said. “Why weren’t they are the top of the list” back in May?

Ritter said the program’s funding woes were caused partly by the refusal of labor advocates to compromise. When the governor and full legislature wouldn’t support a $750 million bonus program, Porter’s committee offered no alternative proposal, forcing leaders to scramble for a last-minute solution. That led to just $30 million being appropriated.

But Porter said labor advocates had compromised by supporting grants of $1,000 per worker, as opposed to the $2,000 grants that many committee members favored.

Had the governor and legislature responded with $200 million or $300 million for the program, the state still would have closed the fiscal year with the largest surplus in its history, by far.

“We’re not doing the right thing, we’re not putting people first,” Porter said, adding she fears the potential grants will be ridiculously low after the application period closes on Oct. 1. “They’re lucky if they get $50 at the rate we’re going.”