February 24 Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee
Connecticut Department of Labor
Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee
February 24, 2022
Good morning Senator Duff, Representative Concepcion, Senator Kelly, Representative Kennedy, and members of the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee. I am Danté Bartolomeo and I am honored to appear before you as Governor Ned Lamont’s nominee for Commissioner at the Department of Labor.
As background, I am a proud lifelong resident of the State of Connecticut. I grew up in Wallingford and, after attending Colby College, came back home where my husband and I raised our children in Meriden. My family places a high premium on being active in our community—my father was the chairman of the Republican Town Committee in Wallingford and my mother was active in the women’s rights movement. Dinner table conversation was always interesting and usually included both sides of the debate…
My parents raised me to think critically. They instilled in me the importance of doing my homework and being prepared. Most importantly, they encouraged me to participate, and I served on both the Meriden City Council and alongside many of you as a two-term state senator representing Meriden and parts of Cheshire, Middletown, and Middlefield. In January 2019, I was honored to be appointed by Governor Ned Lamont as the Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Labor. In June, the Governor named me the interim commissioner, and I sit before you now in the hopes you will confirm my nomination and allow me to continue this important work.
There aren’t words to describe how the past two years have unfolded. The crises created by the pandemic impacted every part of our world. Well beyond the public health emergency, it also brought our economy to a breaking point. The Connecticut Department of Labor, like so many state agencies, was hit very hard. The agency faced challenge after challenge—operations, infrastructure, and staff never got above water before the next wave came. I want to take a moment to tell you that the staff at CTDOL are among the most professional, expert, and diligent I have ever known. Despite the stress that the pandemic has put on their own families, they have done extraordinary work for the residents of this state.
In March and April of 2020 Connecticut lost 292,000 jobs and saw our unemployment rate jump to around 18%. Over the subsequent nearly two years, 627,000 workers filed for 8 federal and state unemployment programs in Connecticut—programs that required the agency to stand up new technology and systems, respond to a rapidly changing federal landscape, and protect the agency from the daily attacks on its system by criminals.
In total, the agency received more than 1.5 million applications for benefits—more than we usually get over a decade—and disbursed more than $10 billion in unemployment funds.
Unemployment insurance is a stabilizer. It is a bridge to help workers who are between employment and the next opportunity—a safety net that keeps food on the table and a roof over a family’s head. We saw this in action during the pandemic as the agency disbursed billions to unemployed workers—funding that also kept the economy afloat during an economic shutdown, the likes of which we have never experienced before. It is absolutely critical to prioritize our agency operations among the most important in the state.
CTDOL: TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN CAPITAL
One of the operational issues Connecticut faces is unemployment technology that is four decades old and breaks easily. After decades of stops and starts to improve these systems, the agency is engaged in a modernization effort to update this technology. On target to launch in July, ReEmployCT is a 21st century system that will allow claimants a more efficient filing experience, improve how employers report financials and other data, and finally give us a way to extract important data to help identify trends in the labor market and economy.
One of the most frequently asked questions CTDOL gets is “does this resident qualify for unemployment benefits?” The professionals at CTDOL are the only ones who can answer that question, and even with great new technology, there is no substitute for their expertise. Without exception, unemployment insurance is complex.
Programs are guided by both state and federal law, include statutory eligibility factors, depend on an individual’s wage and work history, and benefits are impacted by previous filing history and other financial factors.
In short: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to eligibility.
Highly-trained staff are necessary to promote a smooth process for claimants and administer the Trust Fund, which is made up entirely of employer tax dollars.
Years of downsizing left a severe staffing shortage at CTDOL; one that put the agency and the state at a disadvantage. While the impact of the pandemic on the workforce is lessening, with thousands of applications still in our adjudications and appeals processes, upcoming staff retirements threaten operations and compound that disadvantage.
Working with the Governor, CTDOL leaders, OPM, and DAS, I will continue to make hiring, training, and deploying temporary, durational, and permanent staff a priority for our agency.
One of the most significant decisions CTDOL promoted with Governor Lamont, to recover operations after the pandemic struck, was to allocate millions in federal funding to create a Consumer Contact Center for the hundreds of thousands of claimants who needed help. Prior to the pandemic, budget reductions and staffing cuts shifted unemployment work to the network of American Job Centers. The public health crisis necessitated closing these centers to the public, leaving CTDOL no line of communication with filers. Within four months of the pandemic closures, CTDOL had shut down all its American Job Centers; developed and funded a call center model; hired, trained, and deployed more than a hundred claims agents; and put the state back on track.
Thanks to the dedication and commitment of our unemployment unit and claims representatives, in 18 months, the Consumer Contact Center has handled more than 2.1 million calls and cases by phone, email, and chat services.
CTDOL ROLE IN ECONOMIC RECOVERY AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT
Two years into the pandemic, thanks to strong leadership and residents committed to vaccines, masking, and social distancing, the State of Connecticut is well into economic recovery. With December marking a record-setting 12 consecutive months of job growth, our unemployment rate has dropped to 5.8%, our weekly filer rate went from a high of nearly 400,000 in May 2020 to about 32,000 now. Businesses are adding jobs—we’ve regained nearly 75% of the jobs we lost in March and April 2020 when the economy shut down.
These trends are positive, and they begin a new era in Connecticut’s recovery—expanding workforce development and training programs. CTDOL will continue to strengthen our workforce programs using the Two Generational (2Gen) and the Whole Family Approach to Jobs. These initiatives take a pragmatic approach to building a strong and stable workforce pipeline.
In a recent survey CTDOL conducted of 100,000 unemployed workers, the top reasons that residents had not returned to the labor market included a mismatch between jobs and skills; low compensation; and concerns about COVID risks. Women under 44 cited a lack of reliable childcare as a reason they have not yet returned to work.
This is important information that helps inform our work through the pandemic recovery and beyond. Family care, transportation, illness, housing insecurity, and other issues play a major role in workforce participation. Addressing those issues through the Whole Family Approach strengthens our workforce and the economy.
Many of us have heard that there are thousands of jobs available in the state, but workers must have the right skills to fill those jobs. CTDOL plays an active role in preparing workers for the jobs that are out there through Connecticut’s only federally-recognized Registered Apprenticeship program. Currently, there are more than 6,700 apprentices registered with nearly 1,700 companies across 50 occupations.
This past year, Registered Apprenticeship continued to expand into fields that are ripe with opportunity, including healthcare—a sector that requires workers now and is continuing to grow. Just this past summer, CTDOL received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to build out programs that will support the healthcare industry. We were one of only five states to receive the full award and we are partnering with major employers in the state to train and deploy an additional 1,250 Registered Apprentices into the healthcare field.
Joining Registered Apprentices already working and training in nursing, surgical technology, and patient care, this workforce is not only engaged with some of the state’s major health systems, they are also taking advantage of the career ladder created by the Registered Apprenticeship program that helps students continue to grow in their field by combining classroom learning with on the job training.
With employers hunting for talent, hiring events continue to play a major role in strengthening workforce participation. Through new partnerships, the agency is bringing together thousands of job seekers and the employers who have jobs available. CTDOL is looking for interesting venues and inspiring partnerships to help bring workers in from the sideline. This summer at Dillon Stadium, the agency hosted a job fair sponsored by the Hartford Athletic soccer club. With employers ready to hire on the spot, resume and cover letter assistance available, and more than 60 employers participating, the event drew hundreds of job seekers who were ready to get back into the market and who left with strong leads or even offers in hand.
THE CTDOL TEAM
I want to close by saying a few words about the people behind scenes at CTDOL and why I take so seriously my obligation to support them to the fullest degree.
This team at CTDOL has worked tirelessly to serve Connecticut residents. They have met challenge after challenge, working long hours, and doing what needs to be done to achieve CTDOL’s mission.
Staff from units throughout the agency, responding to claimant’s urgent need for help, jumped in to do whatever they could to field thousands of calls and questions. They picked up calls from people experiencing the hardest moments of their lives—fearful, despairing, and angry.
Working for three days, our technical teams were able to reprogram our unemployment filing system to keep it running despite the volume of claim submissions well exceeding its threshold day after day.
About six months into the pandemic, our filing system went down when CTDOL lost power during a storm and then had a backup generator fail. Our facilities team left no stone unturned trying to find replacement parts for an obsolete unit—even looking for components on eBay. They worked tirelessly to get power to our offices and filing system to enable business to continue.
Lastly, I’d like to take one moment to express my gratitude to CTDOL Deputy Commissioners Daryle Dudzinski and Mark Polzella for their extraordinary dedication to the agency and the people it serves.
It would be an honor and a privilege to continue leading this extraordinary team as a member of Governor Lamont’s Administration.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to answering any questions you have.
Connecticut Department of Labor • www.ct.gov/dol
An Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer