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Conn. lawmakers question $3,500 bonuses for state employees, including COs, in union deal

“I don’t think we should be rewarding government when families across Connecticut are struggling,” Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly said

Kevin Kelly

Senate GOP leader Kevin Kelly is joined by House and Senate Republicans during a press conference in Minuteman Park calling for gasoline tax cuts.

Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant

By Christopher Keating
Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut Republicans questioned bonuses of $3,500 for some state employees Thursday in a pay-increase package that requires legislative approval in the coming two months.

Gov. Ned Lamont struck the deal with unions that represent about 43,000 state employees in an attempt to deter some of them from retiring before the fiscal year ends on June 30. Thousands of employees are expected to retire because of changes to their pensions and health care benefits that will make it less lucrative in future years.

The deal, which does not include non-union employees and state legislators, also calls for 2.5% pay increases annually for three years, including retroactively to July 1, 2021.

The first $2,500 of the bonus would be paid during the current fiscal year, while the remaining $1,000 bonus would be paid in July after the new fiscal year begins.

But Republicans said the deal is too generous as consumers are getting squeezed by rising inflation and skyrocketing gasoline prices.

“At a time when Connecticut families are struggling — we’re near dead last in job growth and income growth — this initiative is tone deaf to that reality,’' said Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford.

“Giving government employees who are paid for and funded by the citizens of the state of Connecticut, who are struggling — you’re going to give state employees not only a pay raise, but a bonus.’' He added, “I don’t think we should be rewarding government when families across Connecticut are struggling.’'

Kelly said he “would be surprised’’ if any Senate Republicans vote in favor of the deal.

But state employee unions argue that their workers have received no general wage increases and no “step’’ increases in six of the past 12 years.

Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature, and they have traditionally ratified union agreements that were reached with the executive branch.

Lamont, whose administration negotiated the deal, said the one-time bonus “shows a little bit of appreciation’’ for employees “who showed up every day’’ during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, such as correction officers in the prisons and workers helping people with special needs.

“I wanted to do that’’ on the bonuses, Lamont told reporters Thursday at a day care center in Hartford.

“Some of the most important employees — we need them to stay, and this is one more incentive for you to stay,’' he said.

In addition, Lamont said he is also working on a $25 million bonus pool “so we can help attract the next generation of talent, as well.’'

House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford said the bonuses would cost an estimated $150 million, while the overall costs for the Connecticut State University system could be $150 million.

After talking to state employees with 25 and 30 years of experience who will be retiring, Candelora questioned why the bonus would make them stay.

“Why he thinks that $3,500 will prevent someone from retiring, I’d like to see the statistics on that,’' Candelora said. “People have already made those life decisions. They’ve already bought their house in Florida. They’re ready to go — whether it’s April 1 or July 1. To suggest that, surprise, we’re going to give you 3,500 bucks to stay is really an ill-conceived plan. It’s not well thought out.’'

He added, “We’ve seen rich employment packages in the past. It is unprecedented to give our workers $3,500 bonuses. It’s completely unprecedented.’'

So far, 952 state employees have already retired this year, according to the statistics from the state comptroller’s office, which oversees retirements. In addition, an updated total of 2,307 state employees have filed a non-binding “intent to retire” notice before June 30, but they must still file their actual retirement papers.

The need is particularly acute in the Connecticut state police, where eight troopers and supervisors retired on March 1 in advance of the upcoming benefit changes. In addition, 52 troopers and supervisors have filed notices that they will be retiring on April 1.

Public Safety Commissioner James Rovella, who oversees the state police, is looking to award raises as a way to retain his command staff because nine of the top 10 officers are eligible to retire as of July 1. That includes one colonel, three lieutenant colonels and six majors. Captains and lieutenants have their own union and are not included in the non-union total.

The pay increase for police commanders could range from 3% to 5%, but the final amount was still being determined. Police described the proposal as a “one-time pay compression adjustment, not a yearly increase” into the future.

The retirements are being prompted by an agreement on benefits that was negotiated by SEBAC in 2017.
Employees retiring before July 1 will receive their current benefits that include a guaranteed minimum 2% cost-of-living increase in their annual pensions, as well as free health care premiums for some retirees and spouses. After that date, there will be no guaranteed 2% minimum COLA, and health care would cost roughly $80 per month or about $1,000 per year, officials said. The changes also include a longer wait for a cost-of-living adjustment for pension benefits, including waiting 30 months for their first COLA after retirement — instead of the current nine months.

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