There’s a lot of agreement on the notion that workers who put themselves in harm’s way during this pandemic deserve recognition — and some extra monetary compensation. But in Massachusetts, so far none of the money the state received from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan has been paid out for that purpose. Meanwhile, a classic Beacon Hill fog has descended on the process of doling out the money, making it hard to tell exactly what’s going on between Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature.
Last month, Baker signed a $4 billion package aimed at helping the state recover from economic hardships imposed by COVID-19. The package contained $460 million in “essential employee premium pay,” which Baker supported. But he vetoed a section that included a requirement that the money must be distributed by March 31, as well as language reserving it for certain low-income workers. In a letter to the Legislature, Baker said the main reason for the vetoes was concern over the creation of a 28-member advisory panel that “must consult with and provide recommendations to [the administration] on the design of the program, in a way that is virtually guaranteed to significantly hinder disbursement of the funds.” He urged lawmakers “to let our administration proceed with this important program today.” In other words, Baker wants to decide who gets the money and how much.
Baker may be right that a 28-member panel is unwieldy, particularly when it comes to spending nearly a half-billion dollars. But if the governor is going to take over the process, there should be transparency about who’s getting the money, and he should be guided by the same basic spirit of the original bill: to spend the money quickly and do it with special attention to lower-income workers who continued to show up for work under hazardous conditions during the pandemic. That doesn’t mean nurses and police officers, who are relatively highly paid, shouldn’t receive compensation for their often heroic efforts. It just means making sure that janitors and home health care workers aren’t left out.
The language that Baker vetoed specifically called for direct financial support to “private and public essential workers,” who include but are not limited to health care, behavioral health, and home-care workers; long-term care workers; public health staff; child-care workers, educators, and other education staff; social service and human services staff; workers at farms, food production facilities, grocery stores, and other service workers; transportation workers; utility workers and technicians; and foster care parents. The language Baker vetoed also included a call to “prioritize lower-income essential workers.”
The Baker administration says that it’s continuing to develop the program and that it remains confident that it can start distributing payments by the end of March. Lawmakers requested a timeline from Baker, but have not yet gotten one. It would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override the vetoes. So far that has not happened, hinting that the details are being worked out and that Baker intends to keep to the spirit of the bill. If so, that would be a good thing.
Getting the money out sooner rather than later should be the priority. At the same time, the Baker administration needs to say how they’re going to do it. Practically speaking, sending out a million checks while following federal eligibility criteria is a big task. When it comes to deciding who gets the money, there are also some challenging public policy questions and tough judgment calls to make about the different levels of risk different workers faced and their different levels of financial need. At this point in time — a month after Baker’s veto — it would be good to know more about the governor’s plans for spending the money.
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