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Senate Democrats latest group to push for more pandemic pay

February 17, 2022 GMT
FILE - Clarissa Johnson, of Hartford, marches with long-term care members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, during a rally to demand new laws to protect long-term caregivers and consumers, on July 23, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. Democratic state senators want to dedicate more of Connecticut's federal COVID relief funds on so-called "hero pay" for a wider range of pandemic essential workers. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Clarissa Johnson, of Hartford, marches with long-term care members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, during a rally to demand new laws to protect long-term caregivers and consumers, on July 23, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. Democratic state senators want to dedicate more of Connecticut's federal COVID relief funds on so-called "hero pay" for a wider range of pandemic essential workers. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Clarissa Johnson, of Hartford, marches with long-term care members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, during a rally to demand new laws to protect long-term caregivers and consumers, on July 23, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. Democratic state senators want to dedicate more of Connecticut's federal COVID relief funds on so-called "hero pay" for a wider range of pandemic essential workers. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Clarissa Johnson, of Hartford, marches with long-term care members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, during a rally to demand new laws to protect long-term caregivers and consumers, on July 23, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. Democratic state senators want to dedicate more of Connecticut's federal COVID relief funds on so-called "hero pay" for a wider range of pandemic essential workers. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Clarissa Johnson, of Hartford, marches with long-term care members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, during a rally to demand new laws to protect long-term caregivers and consumers, on July 23, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. Democratic state senators want to dedicate more of Connecticut's federal COVID relief funds on so-called "hero pay" for a wider range of pandemic essential workers. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Pressure is growing among lawmakers in Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s party to give more “hero pay” to a wider range of essential workers who stayed on the job during the early days of the pandemic.

Democratic state senators said Thursday that hero pay will be a top priority during the new legislative session — and they want to use Connecticut’s federal COVID-19 relief funds to do it.

Last year, state lawmakers reserved $22.5 million for hazard pay directed to essential state employees and members of the Connecticut National Guard. Months later, the Lamont administration is still negotiating with state employee unions to determine who should receive the money and how much.

Top leaders of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives also say they’re interested in possibly expanding the list of who might receive a financial boost. And organized labor for months has been calling for all public and private sector essential workers to receive a financial boost. The Connecticut AFL-CIO passed a resolution in October urging Lamont and Democratic legislators to allocate the remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars for that purpose.

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“Until the pandemic, I’m not sure people truly realized how important that grocery store worker is or how important that person who works at the service plaza on the highway is,” said Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chair of the labor committee. “These jobs that are often unseen became essential work.”

Interim federal rules published last year allow state and local COVID-19 recovery funds to be spent on premium pay for essential workers of up to $13 per hour, in addition to their regular wages. The amount cannot exceed $25,000 per employee. Some union leaders have also suggested the state spend budget surplus funds on hero pay.

“It is easy to forget that early in the pandemic, essential workers didn’t have regular access to N95s. Vaccines were still a distant dream. But Governor Lamont deemed them essential with the stroke of a pen. And yet they showed up to work every day despite their fear,” said Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne in a recent statement. “Now, as Connecticut is flush with federal grants and a robust Rainy Day Fund, it is time to show up for them by providing pandemic hazard pay.”

Connecticut is among a number of cities and states struggling to determine who among the many workers who braved the raging coronavirus pandemic before vaccines became available should qualify for the extra pay.

Melissa McCaw, Lamont’s state budget director, said last week that negotiations with state employee union leaders are continuing and she could not discuss the specifics. When asked if the administration considered expanding the number of recipients beyond the state workers and National Guard members, she said no.

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A spokesman for Lamont, who is seeking reelection in November, said previously that the figures cited by organized labor are “just not feasible.”

Senate Democrats did not include a dollar figure or other details of the plan announced Thursday for the pandemic pay.

“There are a lot of discussions taking place about the specific funding number, but those final figures have not been decided at this time,” Kushner said in a statement. “We want to hear from essential workers before determining precisely what will be in the bill. It will go to essential workers who worked and went to their place of work regardless of the personal health risk.”