Strong push yields pandemic pay for union members

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, public sector workers remain essential, and some elected leaders in Connecticut — with a strong push from our union members — are recognizing their hard work and sacrifices with pandemic “hero” pay.

At the municipal level, several AFSCME Council 4 locals have won pandemic pay for members in high-risk jobs.

In April, Bridgeport officials awarded $1,500 in one-time pandemic pay to all city and school district employees, utilizing about $5.3 million of Bridgeport’s $110 million ARPA grant.

Recipients include police officers in Local 1159, school support staff — including paras, clerical staff, custodians — in Local 1522 and Public Works employees in Local 1303-468.

Local 1522 President Sherrie Weller said this week that she heard one of her members was able to use some of the bonus money to visit family in Puerto Rico, which she hadn’t been able to do for “eons and eons.”

It also helped Weller put aside a few extra dollars for her daughter’s upcoming wedding.

She added that she saw a large group of paras who went above and beyond during the height of the pandemic, showing up every day to help distribute food before online school was established and collect educational packets before the kids were able to access online services. 

In December 2020, Local 1522 member Eleanor DeShields, an elementary school paraprofessional, died from COVID-19 that she contracted at work.

“I think that those folks deserve a whole lot more than what they got,” Weller said.

New London police officers in Local 724 received $1,300 in pandemic pay, along with other city employees.

Wilton police officers in Local 1429 received $1,000. Groton police officers in Local 3355 received $250 in the form of extra uniform money.

Seymour police members in Local 564 are currently negotiating, Staff Representative Anthony Bento said this week.

Bento also said that Council 4 leveraged pandemic pay for a higher raise this contract year for Local 1361, representing Middletown Police.

“We just ratified a 4 percent wage increase retroactive to July 1,” he said.

City workers
East Hartford city employees in Local 1174 received $3,000 in pandemic pay.

Local 1174 President Tommy Russo said many of the members — who work in Public Works and Parks and Recreation — put the money into their health savings accounts. 

Since deposits into HSAs are tax-free, members who took this route got to keep more of the money than if they took the money as a bonus at a tax rate of 40 percent.

“That definitely helped out,” Russo said this week. “Probably about half of the employees went that route.” 

Fairfield is offering $200 pandemic pay in the form of a signing bonus, but members in Local 1303-366 — mid-managers including accountants, engineers and IT support — didn’t receive any pandemic pay.

“We came to work every day with masks and gloves on and took our chances,” President Connie Saxl said this week.

Saxl added that while the contract has been settled, it hasn't been signed yet, and new members have been hired since the contract was settled. In addition, four members in the last two years were laid off due to fiscal constraints and restructuring of the departments, she said. 

Waterbury city managers in Local 2090 and blue collar in Local 353 are slated to receive $1,000 in pandemic pay. 

Council 4 Staff Representative Gary Brochu, who works with Local 353, said that it was Service Representative Bob Parziale, who died last month, who led the fight for pandemic pay for Waterbury’s blue collar workers.

Board of Education
Enfield Board of Education workers in Local 1303-46 received $1,000 in pandemic pay.

Woodstock Board of Education paraprofessionals in Local 1303-399 and custodians in Local 1303-400 both received $500 in pandemic pay for members.

The fight continues in places like Norwich, where Local 2422 members urged city leaders last month to use part of its $28 million ARPA grant for pandemic pay for city employees.

Local 2422 President Kate Milde spoke before the Norwich City Council at a workshop meeting June 22.

“You cannot and must not forget your loyal city employees who kept our city stitched together during the pandemic,” she said. “We are the people doing the work that’s been underfunded, and we have some thoughts on the best use of the remaining ARPA monies.”

State employees
The state budgeted $35 million dollars for pandemic pay for National Guard and state workers who were on the frontlines at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) is continuing talks on the final amount and how it should be distributed. SEBAC expects to be in arbitration to resolve this issue if an agreement is not reached this summer.

In an interview with the Associated Press from November 2021, AFSCME Local 387 member Ginny Ligi, a corrections officer in Cheshire, said pandemic hero pay would send a positive message to employees.

"It sounds like it's about the money, but this is a token of appreciation," Ligi, who contracted COVID-19, said. "It's so hard to put into words the actual feeling of what it was like to walk into that place every day, day in, day out. It scarred us. It really did."