State Comptroller Natalie Braswell Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Essential workers who caught COVID-19 on the job in Connecticut have so-far left millions in state compensation on the table as a $34 million assistance fund has gone virtually unused, according to the state comptroller. Lawmakers created the Connecticut Essential Worker COVID-19 Assistance Fund to provide financial help to residents who incurred out-of-pocket medical expenses or lost pay as a result of contracting COVID while working critical jobs between March 10, 2020 and July 20, 2021. The program can also provide up to $3,000 to assist the families with funeral expenses for an eligible worker who died as a result of the virus. 

However, as of this week, the comptroller’s office, which administers the $34 million fund, had paid out only around $300,000. 

“For us, we think that we need to do more outreach,” Comptroller Natalie Braswell said during a state Capitol press conference Thursday. “We need to get more people to know that the program is available, how they apply for the program, what kind of documentation they need.”

The fund launched in January and had originally required workers to apply for assistance by later this month. The legislature later extended that deadline until the end of this year. 

The program covers a wide swath of frontline workers ranging from health care employees, first responders, and grocery store workers to residents working in the finance, legal and communications sectors. The full list is dictated by the Centers for Disease Control, which can be found here

Since January, Braswell said her office had received around 1,700 applications for the program. 

“Even if we process every single one of those applications, we need to get more people applying to the program because, again, folks had financial hardships associated with contracting COVID and we want to make sure they get the monies to make them whole,” she said. 

Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s labor committee, said policymakers needed to make sure that word of the program reached the essential workers eligible to receive benefits.

But Kushner also suggested that documentation requirements necessary to apply for the fund may be too intensive for many workers to produce. 

“We have to make sure that we haven’t made it too difficult to apply,” Kushner said. “I’m told that it’s difficult for workers to get the documents we’re requiring and we may need to simplify the application process.”

On Thursday, Braswell said those documents included information about how much workers are paid and details about their health insurance coverage. Kushner said legislators may consider easing those requirements or extending the deadline to apply.

“We’re not forgetting the essential workers who kept us safe,” Kushner said. “There’s no way we’re going to forget what they did: going to work every day, taking risks while we were sheltering at home, safe. I know people have short memories but this is too important.”

Braswell said her office would soon launch another $30 million fund to provide pandemic pay to essential workers who worked through the pandemic. 

“Basically you don’t have to have contracted COVID at all, it’s just that you qualify as an essential worker,” she said. “We’re in the process of setting up the portal right now. We anticipate that it will be set up and live and ready to go the end of July, beginning of August.”