HARTFORD – State lawmakers have approved a four-year, $1.86 billion agreement with unions representing 46,000 state employees that includes raises and bonuses, in votes that fell largely along party lines.
The Senate approved the contract Friday afternoon in a 22-13 party-line vote, with all Republican members voting against. The House approved the contract on Thursday in a 96-52 vote. State Rep. Tom Delnicki, R-South Windsor, was the only Republican to break ranks and vote in favor of the contract.
The $1.86 billion agreement negotiated between Lamont’s administration and the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition would give about 46,000 covered public sector employees a 2.5 percent raise this year and each of the next three years.
It would also pay union state employees who were employed in July 2021 a bonus of $2,500, and pay those employed this July another $1,000.
The Office of Fiscal Analysis’ estimate that the agreement would cost $1.86 billion doesn’t reflect that the unions and administration have not yet agreed on a raise for the fourth and final year of the contract. The agreement gives them until January 2024 to negotiate raises for the final year.
Opponents have criticized what they’ve said is an effective 15 percent raise for state workers over four year that is unfair to taxpayers who work in the private sector without the same guaranteed raises.
While proponents, the unions and Lamont’s administration have said the negotiated deal is much cheaper for the state than it would be to bring the negotiations to an arbitrator – which they say would likely approve much higher annual raises given 8.5 percent inflation.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said Friday that this is the first time in a long time that the state has been in a financial position to raise the wages of union state employees, who gave up any wage increases in agreements made in 2009, 2011 and 2017.
The state is in a different place financially than it was when those previous agreements were made, Osten said – and the job market is in a very different place, where “employees and not employers are ruling.” The unemployment rate is low, and businesses are still struggling to fill vacancies. Private businesses have taken to raising wages and offering bonuses to entice workers, she said.
“This is a reasonable contract, and an affordable contract compared to the arbitration option,” Osten said. “But more than that, this is a necessary contract so that we can hold on to the best and brightest. We need our state employees.”
State Rep. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden, told the House on Thursday that if the deal was rejected it was certain to go to arbitration, where the annual raises would be set at a minimum of 3 or 3.5 percent.
State Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, said he would be more willing to vote for a deal with 3 percent raises, but without the retroactive bonuses.
The $2,500 bonus isn’t an incentive for people to stay past June when benefit changes are expected to lead to a wave of retirements, and it doesn’t make sense to pay a bonus and increase pension liabilities for an employee who is going to leave right away, Ackert said.
D’Agostino said the contract ended on June 30, 2021. It wouldn’t be fair to “penalize” the workers by denying them the benefits of the first year of the contract just because they have already worked it, he said.
“That is very typical to have a subsequent award that is retroactive to the initial date of the contract, it happens all the time,” D’Agostino said.
State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, the ranking Republican senator on the Appropriations Committee, said there are other priorities lawmakers are considering that come with high price tags. All of them are considered priorities by lawmakers and by residents, but the state can afford very few of them, Miner said.
Expanding the psychiatric inpatient unit at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, a lead-safe homes program, crisis centers, victim services and other priorities are already being funded in the budget as carry forward items, Miner said.
“These are all important policy decisions – some might argue they’re just as important as the SEBAC agreement,” Miner said. “If I had a child waiting in an emergency room on a Saturday afternoon with no services available to that patient, it might be my opinion that was even more important than a $2,500 premium payment to state employees.”
The SEBAC agreement was being placed on the top of the pile of priorities, and lawmakers have still not agreed to a revised budget, Miner said. It means important priorities are going to have to be cut, he said. And if they’re paid for with one-time federal money, it’s going to put the state in an even more difficult position in later years.
“Budgets are about priorities, and this budget is at its max,” Miner said. “To do anything more than what is on the table is going to mean spending money outside of the budget, which means it’s not going to be subject to the cap. Which I might say is gamesmanship. Our bondholders might take it a little more seriously.