PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The McKee administration estimates the controversial $3,000 bonuses for some state workers will cost at least $18 million, a total that could grow as state officials continue to negotiate new contracts with additional union groups.
The multimillion-dollar estimate was outlined in an internal memo, showing R.I. Department of Administration officials plan to split the $18 million price tag between two budget years. The bonuses were offered to most state union members as part of a broader contract negotiation that also included 2.5% annual raises totaling an additional $282 million over a four-year period, according to the memo.
The one-time $3,000 bonuses – paid out in $1,500 allotments, one in December and one in July – were initially presented as an incentive for Council 94 workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, an idea that was approved by the union on Dec. 2. But that policy evoked criticism from lawmakers, including R.I. Deputy House Speaker Charlene Lima, who described the vaccine bonus as a “misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
“The decision to give state workers, most of whom never lost their source of income, a $3,000 bonus for their vaccination was taken as a slap in the face by the average working man and women,” Lima said at the time.
On Dec. 9, Gov. Dan McKee called the vaccine incentive a “misstep,” saying the $3,000 instead would be provided as a “retention tool” rather than a reward for getting inoculated. The governor had also said the bonuses would be paid for using federal funds instead of state tax dollars, emphasizing that while all of those are tax dollars, there is “a distinction between federal dollars that can be used against state dollars.”
“I think that in the end it’s going to be a good contract for the workers, and it’s going to be a good contract for the people in the state of Rhode Island,” McKee said in December.
According to the memo, however, DOA now expects to pay for at least half the cost of the bonuses – $9.1 million – with state dollars from general revenue. The other half will come from a mix of federal funds and other state money that makes up the Rhode Island budget.
“The calculations are done against how personnel is budgeted among the various funding sources of the state,” DOA spokesperson Derek Gomes told Target 12 on Wednesday.
It’s possible the total price tag for the bonuses could grow, as the McKee administration continues to negotiate contracts with unions for state troopers and correctional officers. The head of both those unions told Target 12 this week the ongoing negotiations are why their members are not part of the overall bonus calculation.
“Excluded for purposes of the extra payment calculation are non-union state employees, State Police Troopers, Correctional Officers, and the staff at the three State Colleges,” a DOA official wrote in the memo.
The three state colleges are the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, and some of the people working at the three institutions are members of the unions already getting the bonuses. Others may not qualify because they “fall under the authority” of the schools and may have different budgets, contracts and pay schedules, according to budget officials.
“For this reason, we assume that the institutions will have to manage within their budgets to accommodate whatever increases they may award to their employees from time to time,” Gomes explained.
In all, budget officials said about 6,000 state workers were excluded from the calculation of the $18 million cost of the bonuses. That number includes non-union workers, who state officials have confirmed will not be receiving bonuses at all.
“Non-union Executive Branch agency employees will not receive the payments,” Gomes said in an email. “There is no alternative plan for them.”