The legislature’s Appropriations Committee heard conflicting arguments on the merits of pay increases for state employees before voting to advance a negotiated labor agreement during a Monday meeting.
A coalition of public sector labor unions and Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration agreed on a plan to provide the state’s workforce with annual raises as well as a total $3,500 in bonuses this year. A preliminary estimate by the legislature’s fiscal analysts predict the deal will cost about $1.87 billion over four years.
State employees under the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition have already ratified the agreement, which must be approved by the legislature in order to go into effect. The Appropriations Committee took the first step in that process Monday afternoon with a vote along party lines to advance the deal in the legislative process.
Ahead of the vote, the panel spent much of the day hearing feedback from state workers, union leaders and other members of the public.
Public workers described the agreement as an incentive to stay on the job amid a statewide staffing shortage. Workers have been retiring from state service at unprecedented levels as a result of previously negotiated benefit givebacks.
“It can be really hard to recruit the workers that we need to fix the staffing crisis and while this is detrimental to us, it’s worse for our patients,” Leslie Bumpus, a Correction Department dentist, said.
“We have clients waiting on the dental list for years because we never have enough dental staff,” Bumpus said. “We’re constantly putting out fires by extracting infected and painful teeth instead of being able to proactively clean and maintain oral health in our patients.”
Others described the deal as a too-lucrative gift to state employees from politicians running for re-election in November.
“The SEBAC agreement is a bad deal, I believe, for Connecticut,” Kim Healy told lawmakers. “It is tone deaf and appears to even regular folks like me to be pandering to special interests in an election year. I urge you to go back and get a better deal for us.”
Ken Girardin, director of policy and research for the conservative think tank, the Yankee Institute, said the pay raises included in the deal would leave state government constrained for years.
“The deal leaves our elected lawmakers with much, much less say over how we should direct state dollars,” Girardin said. “Whether it’s social services, municipal aid, tax relief, mental health, education or any other policy priority.”
However, members of the Lamont administration and negotiators for the unions told the committee that agreement represents a good deal for taxpayers, as the labor coalition could have sought higher pay raises given the state’s current budget surplus and high rates of inflation.
Both Jeff Beckhem, Lamont’s budget chief, and Dan Livingston, lead negotiator for the unions, said the 2.5% pay raises included in the agreement were cheaper than the 3% raise already awarded by an arbitrator for this year. Unions accepted the 2.5% bumps, in part, due to the much-publicized bonus payments, they said.
“This agreement is a great example of a contract that is good for everyone. Rejecting this agreement would be the opposite,” Livingston said. If lawmakers declined the deal, “we’re likely to be back here in a year with awards with higher raises but an even smaller and more decimated workforce and public service even greater in crisis. That’s the definition of a lose-lose situation.”
The budgetary spending committee closed out the hearing and convened a meeting, during which the panel voted to advance separate House and Senate resolutions to approve the deal. Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, and other Republicans voted against the resolutions.
“I understand it was negotiated in good faith between the union leadership and the administration but when I look at the costs overall, the sustainability, there are questions still outstanding in my mind,” France said.