Screenshot of a virtual press conference of he State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition and Recovery For All

Labor unions and their allies called on Gov. Ned Lamont Wednesday to fill vacancies in the state workforce and resist the temptation to use a historic wave of retirements and current staffing shortages to privatize government services.

The state is in the midst of an unusual constriction of its public workforce, driven in large part by a previously-negotiated change in retiree cost-of-living benefits. The change  incentives retirement for eligible employees before next July. Thirteen thousand state workers are eligible to leave before that time and their departure will exacerbate existing staffing shortages, which have grown more pronounced throughout the pandemic. 

With bargaining units representing much of the state workforce negotiating new contracts with the Lamont administration, the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition and Recovery For All, a labor-adjacent coalition of organizations, called on the governor to commit to filling all vacancies and expanding services. 

During an afternoon press conference centered on residents who rely on state services for things like education and behavioral health care, Puya Gerami, campaign director of Recovery for All, said now was the wrong time to consider privatizing services. 

“It’s not an exaggeration this is a matter of life and death for residents in Connecticut,” Gerami said. “So again we’re calling on Governor Lamont to commit to protecting and expanding state services. Fill the vacancies. Refill the positions when workers retire and the bottom line: don’t cut services, expand them.”

The Lamont administration has looked for opportunities to save money in the swell of retirements. It commissioned a report by the Boston Consulting Group, the results of which it released earlier this year. The consulting firm estimated the state could find between $600 million and $900 million in savings related to the dwindling workforce.

However, during a legislative hearing this week, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw told lawmakers that the administration was working to fill at least some of the vacated posts. Her comments came after Appropriations Committee co-chair, Sen. Cathy Osten asked about retirements amidst a “1950s level” state workforce. McCaw said the administration was expediting the hiring process by giving agencies more flexibility to bring new workers on board. 

“There are a significant number of vacancies that are under recruitment particularly in our areas of direct care,” McCaw said. “We know that the health care industry is struggling with finding personnel for these particular roles and that’s something that impacts state government and certainly outside of state government.”

On Tuesday, McCaw presented legislators with a largely optimistic fiscal outlook but she declined to say whether negotiations with the state worker unions would yield more favorable wage packages for public employees. Asked Wednesday, Lamont said little about the negotiations. 

“We’re working with them every day,” Lamont said. “They did extraordinary work all through the pandemic. Appreciate that and we’re going to make sure they’re compensated fairly.”

During the labor press conference, Dave Glidden, executive director of CSEA SEIU 2001, said the state “missed the ball” amid the 2008 recession by failing to invest in the things its residents care about. He said that included maintaining functioning public services. 

“This is a crossroads we’re in right now and we’re either going to have a robust recovery from the pandemic — what we hope is the end of the pandemic — or we’re going to fall flat and the key is investing in people and investing in services,” Glidden said. 

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, pointed to shortages of mental health services for children across the state, which have prompted legislative hearings and calls for increased funding. 

“Look at the case study of what’s happening with the children of our state. We are in a state of a crisis when you do not have enough support that is available to protect our children with mental health issues,” Anwar said. “That’s as critical as anything can get.”