File photo of Gov. Ned Lamont at a union event in November 2018 Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

If ratified by state workers, a labor deal providing raises and bonuses looks likely to be the subject of a partisan debate in the legislature as Republicans signaled Thursday they believed the terms negotiated by the governor’s administration are too costly.

A coalition of public sector unions and Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration announced last week they had reached a tentative agreement on compensation for around 43,000 state employees. 

According to documents provided to unionized state workers, the deal includes 2.5% step raises for the next three years beginning with a raise retroactive to last July. If approved, workers will also receive $3,500 in bonuses spread over two installments. 

In addition to a vote by rank and file workers, which union leaders expect to occur in the next few weeks, the terms will need to be approved by the state legislature. At an unrelated press conference Thursday, the legislature’s top Republicans told reporters they do not expect their members to support the deal.

“I would be shocked,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said. “We’ve seen rich employment packages in the past. It is unprecedented to give our workers $3,500 bonuses.” 

The deal comes at a pivotal time for both Lamont, a Democrat seeking re-election in November, and state government, where the number of workers has plunged this year as many eligible employees choose to retire rather than accept the leaner cost-of-living adjustment terms that will apply to any state worker who retires after July 1. 

According to the state comptroller’s office, 952 state workers have already retired this year as of earlier this week and another 2,307 have filed paperwork indicating their intent to retire soon. 

In a press release this week, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition cast the tentative agreement as a fair deal aimed at recruiting and retaining qualified state workers in the face of a “retirement tsunami.” Unionized state workers have had their wages frozen for six of the last 12 years and the state has demanded benefit concessions as previous negotiations took place against a backdrop of state budget deficits. This year, the state enjoys a surplus.

“Now is the time to invest in Connecticut’s future with a diverse and talented workforce ready to move us forward, not backwards,” union leaders wrote in a press release. “We hope that these Tentative Agreements encourage our current workforce to delay their retirement and continue to provide these critical public services.”

On Thursday, Candelora said he suspected the terms of the deal would be inadequate to coax eligible state employees away from their plans to retire. 

“I’ve talked to state workers that have been in for 20 or 30 years,” Candelora said. “They’ve already made those life decisions, they’ve already bought their house in Florida. They’re ready to go.”

File photo of former AFSCME Executive Director Sal Luciano at a Lamont campaign rally in 2018 Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Candelora said the agreement seemed to be an election-year concession by Lamont to the state’s labor community and a missed opportunity by the governor, who had previously expressed interest in using the retirements to consolidate state government. 

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said it was “tone deaf” to provide pay increases and bonuses to public sector workers while private sector workers were struggling. 

“I know that the financial circumstances of the state are good, but the financial circumstances of the people who pay for our government are not. And I don’t think we should be rewarding government when families across Connecticut are struggling,” Kelly said.

Republican opposition to the labor agreement is not unexpected. Even deals in previous years that included wage freezes and givebacks failed to attract much support from Republicans. The agreements will likely receive a warmer reception from the Democrats who control both chambers of the legislature.

Speaking generally about the details of the deal, Senate President Martin Looney said he was inclined to support the agreements.

“What they will do is to help us to attract quality workers to state government and retain those we have,” Looney said. “It’ll be a positive thing for the state.”

Looney said he hoped more lucrative contracts may help prevent a further “hollowing-out” of state agencies by privatizing certain government functions. Years of tight budgets and frozen wages has made state employment less desirable to some employees, he said. 

“Many of those years were years of no increases and so it’s legitimate to catch up now that things are better somewhat because we really don’t want to be losing skilled people who just decide there are better opportunities for them outside of state government,” Looney said.   

The Office of Policy and Management, which negotiated the deal with state employees, has not released the details of the agreement to the media.