More money could be headed to cash-strapped 'hero pay' program
A new "hero pay" program promised frontline workers up to $1,000 in bonuses, but it's badly underfunded. Now Connecticut lawmakers are battling over whether to spend millions more on it.
On Wednesday, state comptroller-elect Sean Scanlon urged lawmakers to fully fund the Connecticut Premium Pay Program.
"They deserve it," said Scanlon. "We have no way of truly thanking the people that served in this hospital, that served as our police officers, our firefighters, our EMTs, our day care workers. But this is a start."
The money would help workers like Zina Bennett, a certified nursing assistant who spent the worst days of the pandemic working at a Trumbull nursing home. Some of her fellow union members had no access to personal protective equipment.
"It's heartbreaking," Bennett told News 12 in April 2020. "Every day I cry and I just keep praying."
The "hero pay" program is limited to private-sector workers who couldn't work from home between March 2020 and May 2022, and fell under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Phase 1a and 1b vaccine classifications. Eligible workers can earn up to $150,000 per year. Applications closed on Oct. 1.
The state was flooded with applications. The comptroller's office has approved 134,010 people, but state lawmakers only allocated $30 million for the program. Scanlon said the fund needs $122 million to pay out the full bonus amount.
"A lot more people applied for it than we thought they would," he said.
At current funding levels, most applicants would only get a $233 check – a quarter of the full bonus.
State lawmakers are already returning to Hartford this month to vote on gas tax relief. Democratic leaders said Wednesday that pandemic bonuses will also be included.
"We fully anticipate Hero Pay to be part of the upcoming special session," said Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter (D-Hartford). "It's simply a matter of going over the details with the Appropriations Committee, the Senate and the governor."
But Republican leaders are pushing back.
"The 'hero pay' program has been flawed from its inception as some groups of workers were included and others excluded for no rational reasons," said state Rep. Vin Candelora (R-North Branford), the top House Republican. "Rather than continue to pour in millions more in a special session, we need to step back and re-define who is eligible and establish details parameters so that those who truly need and deserve assistance are helped."
Not all of the extra $92 million would come from new spending. Scanlon recommended shifting $30 million from an underutilized COVID -19 Relief Fund.
On the flip side, labor unions want lawmakers to expand the Premium Pay program.
"This program should be expanded to include municipal essential workers who were left out," said Shellye Davis, executive vice president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. "Our local fire fighters, police officers, education workers, and so many others are equally deserving of pandemic pay. The program should also include essential workers designated as CDC vaccination category 1C. These exclusions need to be addressed in any upcoming special sessions."
A special session date has not been set yet, but lawmakers are expected to return on Nov. 28 or 29.