Lamont, the unions are heading towards a showdown on the “remuneration of the heroes”


Yehyun Kim ::

Long-term care workers block the Ministry of Social Services hub in March 2021 to draw attention to the treatment of caregivers. Protesters demanded better wages and benefits, including affordable health insurance and retirement options and paid time off.

Hoping to get better pay for the thousands of home helpers who risked their lives during the pandemic, Cynthia Johnson of Greenwich asked a direct question as she demonstrated outside Governor Ned Lamont’s home in Greenwich on a cold morning in December.

“Where are our Thanksgiving and Christmas?” Asked Johnson, who wore a Grinch hat as dozens of other protesters chanted “Fix the broken system” and “Shame on you.”

But while these members of New England Health Workers Union District 1199 SEIU were rallying for a new contract with better wages and benefits, their question is part of a larger issue, union leaders say, and the lack of response is producing a crisis across Connecticut.

The state received billions of dollars last year in federal pandemic aid, has billions more in its budget reserve, and expects another huge surplus next June. Unless state officials use some of that to compensate the wide range of workers who have risked their lives on a daily basis to provide essential services over the past two years, union leaders say staff shortages will become a pandemic in itself.

What if Lamont and state lawmakers – who face re-election this year – can’t remember the health workers, teachers, social workers, first aid workers, prison guards, and grocery store workers who don’t. could not work from home, say union members, they will be reminded of these essentials.

“You may have our future in your hands right now,” Johnson said. “But come on election day, your future will be in our hands. “

“We put them in danger. We are putting their families at risk.

Lawmakers routinely file complaints that Connecticut employers can’t find enough nurses, other healthcare workers, teachers, catering staff, and skilled workers in manufacturing.

It’s no accident, said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. The pandemic and the resulting divide between remote and frontline workers has definitely changed the way workers perceive frontline jobs.

Put simply, the wages and benefits offered in some cases just aren’t worth the risks of illness and death, she said.

“Let’s be honest, it’s not a labor shortage,” Porter said. “It’s a shortage of wages. … It’s a medicare shortage.

Porter added that some members of the government are unwilling to recognize this responsibility that Connecticut has effectively placed on a poor subset of the population.

“We said, ‘If you’re essential you have to go out and keep the economy open,’” she said. “We put them in danger. We are putting their families at risk.

District 1199 has made this argument several times over the past year, winning raises and better benefits for workers in nursing groups and homes, and still fighting for the same results for home helpers. Workers in all three groups are employed by private agencies, which obtain most of their funding from government sources.

District 1199 demonstrated last month at Lamont’s home in Greenwich to highlight this division of labor.

“People in this neighborhood worked from home. Have any of you been able to work from home? Diedre Murch, vice president of the union’s home care sector, asked the protesters. “Many of you make impossible decisions every day about whether to pay the rent or the bills, buy food or buy medicine. “

Murch said that about two-thirds of Connecticut’s 10,000 personal care workers – most of whom are women or racial minorities – rely on public assistance, while one in five people have no health insurance.

The union demanded $ 20 an hour, paid sick leave and affordable, quality health insurance. The $ 3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds sent by Congress to Connecticut last year included $ 240 million for home care services. District 1199 officials say that should be enough for the state to resolve the dispute, but members have been without a new contract for more than seven months.

“Gov. Lamont has proposed and executed several programs to support frontline workers and their families since the onset of the pandemic, ”said Max Reiss, director of communications for Lamont.

The governor and the legislature have allocated $ 34 million in ARPA resources to cover part of the lost wages and medical expenses incurred by frontline workers. Lamont also ordered that $ 75 million in federal funds be distributed to working poor families.

But critics say it’s way too little.

The $ 34 million was a bone thrown at lawmakers who failed to convince the governor to change the workers’ compensation system. Labor rights advocates have argued that any worker exposed to COVID and faced with lost wages or health expenses should automatically be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

The pandemic has triggered thousands of workers’ compensation claims, and lawmakers say the $ 34 million will likely be used up before all claims for help have been processed.

The $ 75 million Lamont hands out goes to families who earned less than $ 57,000 in 2020, for an average profit of $ 377. Porter noted that a family with two adults working in low-paying frontline jobs could easily be disqualified from any help under this criterion.

The Lamont administration has been in negotiations with state employee unions since September over some form of special risk compensation, but these talks have not resulted in any agreement to date.

And while a source close to the administration said the governor did not like the protest outside his Greenwich home, labor rights activists say the numbers speak for themselves.

Two years after the start of the pandemic, “Hero Pay” remains only a concept

Lamont was reluctant to dip into state funds for COVID-19 aid to workers, preferring to hand out only federal dollars. This is despite holding a record $ 3.1 billion in the rainy day fund and analysts forecasting a surplus of nearly $ 1.9 billion for the current fiscal year.

“The governor remains open to further supportive measures, but only if the calculations add up, and only if the qualifying criteria for public and private sector participation are clear,” Reiss said.

A combination of federal and state funds should be used, say labor rights activists, for what many call the “hero pay” – a one-time injection of money for workers who have risked their health to keep the workplace running. ‘State.

“Of course, there is no sum of money that would fully compensate essential workers for their sacrifices – but two years after the pandemic, the state has not allocated a dime,” said Puya Gerami, director campaign for Recovery for All CT, a coalition of labor and faith groups. “We look forward to working with the Lamont administration to formulate a comprehensive package honoring all workers in the public and private sectors for their crucial sacrifices.”

Lawmakers and labor groups have considered spending between $ 250 million and $ 500 million to pay heroes, noting that the funds would likely be split among hundreds of thousands of Connecticut households. Porter and the other labor committee co-chair, Senator Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, introduced a bill last year earmark nearly $ 400 million for this purpose.

Towns and villages have received more than $ 1.5 billion in direct federal aid through ARPA legislation, but union officials say communities, in general, have been reluctant to use it to fund compensation in the event of a pandemic.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said it was “a worthy discussion” but also noted that the coronavirus has strained school systems, left many businesses and families in financial difficulty and pushed the number of social service cases through the roof.

But all sides agree that the state has the richest pockets right now, and any paid heroes are likely to come from the Capitol in Hartford.

“I’m disappointed as a state that we haven’t done this yet,” Kushner said, noting that Lamont and lawmakers have released $ 155 million in tax relief that businesses face to replenish the trust from state unemployment.

Lawmakers plan to expand that assistance during the 2022 General Assembly session in February. And Chris DiPentima, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said his group is urging lawmakers to invest more in worker training programs to address growing staff shortages.

The focus, Kushner said, is almost entirely on employers and not enough on working families.

“We’ve helped businesses, we’ve helped big businesses,” she added, urging Lamont and other lawmakers to view Hero Pay as another investment – an investment that will prevent families from benefiting from the fund. government aid, reduce expulsions and help send more students to university. “I think we need to invest in the Connecticut workforce… if we really want everyone to recover.”


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