Massachusetts Sending $500 Payments To 500,000 Workers; Here’s Who Qualifies

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By Colin A. Young
State House News Service

The Baker administration plans to send $500 checks to about 500,000 low-income workers across Massachusetts next month as it rolls out the first premium pay program of its kind in the nation, the state Executive Office of Administration and Finance announced Tuesday afternoon.

The premium pay program was created in the $4 billion COVID-19 relief law that Governor Charlie Baker signed in December and was initially meant to benefit low-income frontline employees who worked in person during the COVID-19 state of emergency that began in March 2020. But despite the administration referring to the program as one that will aid “lower-wage frontline workers who put themselves at risk with admirable commitment to their communities,” whether someone worked in person or remotely will have no bearing on eligibility for the initial round of $250 million in payments.

Massachusetts workers will be eligible for the payment if their 2020 income from employment was at least $12,750 (the equivalent of working 20 hours a week for 50 weeks at the 2020 minimum wage of $12.75 an hour) and their total income put them below 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($38,280 for a single filer). The state is using 2020 tax returns to determine eligibility. No one who received unemployment payments in 2020 will be eligible.

An Administration and Finance official said most people will find out that they are eligible when they get a check in the mail, but the state has also published a new website with eligibility information and answers to frequently asked questions.

“I was pleased to sign the COVID-19 Essential Employee Premium Pay program into law in December, and our Administration has worked quickly to design the parameters for the program with plans to efficiently begin distribution of these payments by the end of March,” Baker said. “This program will support those workers who served our communities, especially early in the pandemic.”

For nearly two months, Baker’s team has been assembling the program after he vetoed sections of the COVID relief law favored by the Legislature that would have created a 28-member panel to design the premium pay program and determine eligibility. His veto has stood and legislative leaders raised no concerns Tuesday, February 8 with the plan as outlined by Baker’s team.

“When creating the premium pay program, the Legislature was clear in its intent to distribute payments to low-income workers. I’m pleased to see the first round of payments will be distributed by the March 31st deadline as originally intended, and hopeful that the remainder of funds will be distributed as soon as possible,” Massachusetts House Speaker Ron Mariano said.

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka said she was proud to have created the program and that she hopes “the funds provide relief to those who kept our Commonwealth moving forward during the pandemic, and that all funds will be disbursed soon.”

One of the sections vetoed by Baker would have required that eligibility “include, but not be limited to, essential workers: (i) with a household income at or below 300 per cent of the federal poverty level as calculated by the United States Department of Health and Human Services; and (ii) who worked in person and not in a remote setting during the state of emergency declared by the governor on March 10, 2020.”

An administration official said Tuesday that eligibility for the first round of payments was limited to income thresholds because it was a faster, simpler, and more inclusive way of getting the payments out the door. The official also said that the spirit of the vetoed section is preserved because lower-income workers were far more likely to have worked in person early in the pandemic.

The first round of payments will disburse a total of about $250 million of the $460 million authorized for the premium pay program. The law also included $40 million to “be distributed by the secretary of administration and finance for 1-time payments not to exceed $2,000 to front-line state employees required to work in-person during the winter of 2020 to 2021.”

Future rounds doling out the remaining $210 million in premium pay money will be based on 2021 tax return information, meaning that additional volleys of premium pay are unlikely until the April deadline for filing 2021 taxes has passed. Anyone who receives a payment in the first round will not be eligible for payment in future rounds, officials said.

Tim Foley, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, said the union’s health care workers applaud the payments.

“The men and women who work in community health centers, hospitals, nursing homes, and home care have given the most throughout the pandemic and they deserve to be honored with this action,” Foley said in a statement late Tuesday. “It is now up to healthcare employers to follow in the steps of the state and do their part to ensure all healthcare workers receive pandemic premium pay.”


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