Private sector workers essential in the fight against terrorism can apply for the epidemic bonus
Health care workers, grocery employees and other private sector employees who provided vital services during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic can start applying for a bonus of up to $1,000 from the state.
The Office of Comptroller Natalie Braswell opened the Premium Pay gateway on its website on Friday. And while applicants can start applying now, an official launch will be announced next week.
But it won’t be clear until early October whether applicants will receive up to $1,000. That’s because lawmakers and Governor Ned Lamont set aside just $30 million for the program, and labor advocates predict that this will fall short of adequately covering all eligible workers.
“Essential Connecticut workers have gone to great lengths during the pandemic to keep our state safe and functioning,” Braswell said Friday. “The new Premium Pay program is another way for us to give back. I look forward to officially launching the program next week and encourage every eligible worker to apply. For this money to really pay off, every essential worker needs to know it’s available. I hope other government officials and employers can help us. Advocacy groups and ordinary citizens are spreading the word so we can provide every worker with the help and relief they deserve.”
To be eligible, an applicant must have worked between March 10, 2020 and May 7, 2022 in one of the “1A” or “1B” occupations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s immunization priority lists.
Some of the frontline workers in these categories include health care workers, food and agricultural workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store employees, public transportation workers, teachers, and childcare employees.
Eligible applicants must earn less than $150,000 annually and cannot be employed by a federal, state, or municipal government entity.
Full-time workers earning less than $100,000 can apply for a $1,000 grant. Those who earn more than $100,000 but less than $150,000 are eligible for grants of a graduated scale, ranging from $200.
Part-time workers who work less than 30 hours per week can apply for a $500 grant.
The application period will run until October 1, and the goal is to process applications within 60 days, according to Braswell’s office.
On or around October 1, the controller must also determine whether grants will be reduced, on a proportional basis, if demand exceeds available funds.
This potential cut, mandated by the legislature, is a major concern for labor advocates who argue that the program is already too frugal.
Rep. Robin Porter, a Democrat from New Haven, called the $30 million “a drop in the bucket,” especially when compared to the neighboring $500 million that Massachusetts has earmarked for front-line workers.
“We believe that anyone who took risks during the pandemic should be compensated for the risk,” Connecticut AFL-CIO president Ed Hawthorne told the CT Mirror earlier this summer. Approved $30 million “may not be enough. Hopefully, the Governor and the General Assembly will realize that.”
Up to 5% of the $30 million can be used for administrative costs, leaving at least $28.5 million for grants.
If Connecticut ended up awarding an average grant of $500—which matches the flat grant that Massachusetts provides to essential workers—it would allow Connecticut to award roughly 57,000 grants.
But the Bay State program has already sent payments to 480,000 people in March and another 330,000 in May, according to the Commonwealth Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
The Massachusetts plan covers both public and private sector workers, but advocates of action here say that just $30 million for Connecticut’s private sector is far less generous.
The Porter Commission has proposed a $750 million budget for a pandemic rewards program that targets both the public and private sectors. The $30 million approved for the private sector only resulted from final state budget negotiations last summer between top legislative leaders and Governor Ned Lamont’s administration.
To make the dollars stretch, the legislature and Lamont also excluded a third category of essential workers, listed as “1C” by the Centers for Disease Control.
These include a wide range of jobs, but job advocates have pointed to some in this hard-to-understand category. Soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community meal programs fall into this category, as do gas station workers.
Braswell said Friday she hopes the premium pay program will also be used to boost public awareness of the state’s second assistance program for frontline workers.
The COVID-19 Essential Workers Assistance Program has struggled to get dollars out of the home since it began in January, though interest has grown over the past month.
During the middle of the week, the Braswell office approved $560,000 in relief in total, distributed among 138 recipients.
And while that amount is higher than the total approved of $361,122 for 102 recipients through early June, it’s still only 1.6% of the program’s $34 million budget.
This initiative to replace lost wages and cover medical expenses for frontline workers – from both the public and private sectors – who have contracted COVID has stalled due to the no-show and complex application process ordered by the legislature and Lamont.
Braswell, who was tasked with overseeing the program, launched a vigorous awareness campaign this summer to boost participation.
“I am happy to see our outreach efforts lead to an increase in the number of applications,” she said. “My staff and I will continue to travel to the state and speak to any group involved. Eligibility for the program, as defined by law, may seem daunting, but there is a team standing ready to assist workers through the process.”
The COVID-19 Essential Worker Assistance Program web portal has been linked to the new Premium Pay initiative, to help potential recipients learn about both efforts, according to the Comptroller’s Office.
The agency has also set up an information phone line at 833-660-2503, and Spanish language support is available.