Ginny Ligi believes she contracted COVID-19 in her job as a correction officer at Cheshire Correctional Institution.
“I was bedridden for over a month,” said Ligi, who is the secretary of AFSCME Local 387 representing state Department of Correction employees. She lived “behind a closed door” so she didn’t pass the disease on to her children, she said. “My family suffered tremendously.”
Ligi and thousands of other state employees who had to show up for work during the pandemic are asking for pandemic hazard pay for their loyalty and hard work in difficult circumstances, said Sal Luciano, president of the CT AFL-CIO.
“They put their lives and the lives of their families at risk,” Luciano said Monday during a press conference urging legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont to release the funding. “They call them heroes, now it’s time to show them that’s true.”
Luciano wants Lamont to turn over $500 million to pay every state worker who could not telecommute an extra $1 an hour for every hour they were on the job during the pandemic. He contends the funding should come from the $2.8 billion the state received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The $500 million would encompass thousands of state workers including the nearly 6,000 employees of the DOC, Luciano said.
“We think the money should go there, not to plug Connecticut’s budget,” Luciano said.
But according to state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, the legislature and Lamont agreed to spend $10 million on pandemic hazard pay for the National Guard and a number of state employees to be designated by Lamont’s office.
As of Monday, Osten didn’t know which state employees would get hazard pay or how much they would receive. “That would also cover the National Guard,” Osten said. “It could be $50, it could be $100, right now we don’t know.”
The union’s press conference was staged in advance of a special session to wrap up unfinished business including passing the implementer bill that spells out how the money in the budget will be spent.
Osten said the legislature does not need a list of the job classifications that will get the pandemic hazard pay to vote on the implementer bill. But she has asked for one.
Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment. As of 6 p.m. Monday the details of the budget implementer were still being negotiated which made it impossible to say how much would be allocated for hazard pay for workers.
Ligi was one of about 1,700 DOC employees who contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic. Some are still dealing with debilitating long term health effects, she said.
She said she watched dozens of co-workers fall ill and as a result, 16-hour shifts became the norm. “We’re defeated, we’re exhausted, we’re fatigued,” she added.
Other DOC employees are struggling with mental health issues that they didn’t have prior to the pandemic, said Millie Brown, a correction officer and union official with CSEA SEIU 2001. They want more than thanks and platitudes from politicians, Brown said.
“They risked their lives to ensure Connecticut moved forward in a safe way every day,” Brown said. “Throughout the pandemic our members continually showed up.”
Even the clerical staff was required to be in the building during the pandemic, said Deb Williams, a records specialist at the Bridgeport Correctional Center and a union steward for AFSCME Local 478.
“We were ‘non-essential’ but all that changed and we became ‘essential,’” Williams said. “We took tremendous risks to serve the public. We may not have been in the belly of the correctional facilities but we have shown our commitment and sacrifice. Grant us the pandemic hero pay. Treat us like the heroes were praised as.”