Senators vote during a session on April 12, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The Senate gave final approval Wednesday to an $49 million arbitrated agreement to provide bonuses to around 36,000 public sector employees who went to work throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chamber took a bipartisan, 32 – 3  vote to approve the agreement, which was awarded by a labor arbitrator last year. Republican Senators Eric Berthel of Watertown, Ryan Fazio of Greenwich, and Rob Sampson of Wolcott were the only dissenting votes. The House gave its approval last week

During a short debate, Senate President Martin Looney said the bonuses were meant to recognize front line state employees, who continued reporting to work in the early days of the pandemic, when a vaccine had yet to be developed. 

“There was risk every single day and the people were at their stations, did the work they needed to do,” Looney said. “Everything would have been chaotic and fallen apart had they not done that. So it is appropriate that we recognize that in this award.”

Arbitrator Susan Meredith made the award in favor of a coalition of state employee unions following negotiations with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration last year. The agreement includes different levels of compensation for two categories of state employees. 

Employees like first responders, health care professionals and congregate setting workers considered higher risk will receive bonuses of between $250 and $2,834, depending on how many hours they worked between March of 2020 and March of 2021. Other in-person workers will receive between $125 and $1,417, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis

Some Republican lawmakers argued that the agreement was unfair because the state had done more to compensate its own employees for work during the pandemic than it had to compensate private sector employees. 

Senate Minority Kevin Kelly, who voted in favor of the agreement, said the bonuses were in addition to$3,500 payments state workers received last year under contract agreements. 

“While I will support this today, I will continue to echo that voice, the voice of the frustrated, the voice of the working and middle class families who aren’t getting the same deal that the government is getting,” Kelly said. “I think government has gotten enough.”

The state provided bonuses to front line private sector workers last year through an underfunded program called Premium Pay, which was intended to provide payments of $1,000 but largely fell short. 

Lawmakers increased state support for the initiative from $30 million to $105 million during a special session in November, only workers making less than $50,000 were eligible for $1,000 payments and those making between $100,000 and $150,000 received as little as $100.

Following the Senate’s passage of the arbitration agreement, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition issued a press release including the recollections of public employees who worked through difficult conditions during the pandemic. 

In the press release, Sean Howard, a correction officer and president of AFSCME Local 387, said prison workers experienced more than 7,000 COVID cases.  

“I caught COVID early, before there was a vaccine and have permanent heart damage as a result,” Howard said. “I suffered through wondering if I brought home this infection to my wife and my young son. This award is small, but it is meaningful.  It is a societal recognition of the courage of my members.”