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Mass. will pay $500 to a half million low-income workers next month

The state intends to set up a hot line residents can call with questions about the program. Officials acknowledged, however, that most people will likely find out that they are eligible when the check arrives in the mail.Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

Massachusetts state officials said Tuesday they will begin sending $500 payments to hundreds of thousands of low-income workers next month, offering what Governor Charlie Baker’s administration described as an initial round of bonuses included in a sweeping COVID-19 recovery package.

Roughly 500,000 residents will receive a payment by the end of March under the state’s so-called Essential Employee Premium Pay program, state officials said. The checks, which are expected to total approximately $250 million, represent the first tranche from a $460 million initiative initially designed to reward low-income workers who worked in-person, particularly during the early throes of the pandemic.

But under criteria released Tuesday, the Baker administration said it is not limiting the checks to only those who worked in person. State officials argued there was not a clear-cut way to determine whether someone had ever worked remotely if officials hoped to distribute the payments quickly.


Instead, the Baker administration based its criteria on 2020 tax returns, making eligible those who earned at least $12,750 in income from a job — the rough equivalent of working 20 hours a week, for 50 weeks, at $12.75 per hour, the state’s minimum wage in 2020 — and whose total income did not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

At 300 percent of 2020 federal poverty levels, an individual with an annual income up to $38,280 will be eligible, as will a family of four whose income was $78,600 or below. Anyone who received unemployment benefits in 2020 will not be eligible under the first round of payments, according to Baker administration officials, and someone who receives a bonus check in March will not be able to get another in subsequent rounds.

“This program will support those workers who served our communities, especially early in the pandemic,” Baker said in a statement.


After the initial payments next month, the Baker administration said it intends to send out the remaining $210 million in one or more future rounds, with plans to base future payments off of 2021 tax return data. Tax returns covering last year must be submitted by mid-April.

Baker’s parameters differ from what lawmakers initially called for, including ensuring the checks went to health care workers, bus drivers, and others who didn’t have a choice to work remotely after Baker declared a state of emergency in March 2020.

Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chairman, said he was “disappointed” Baker didn’t include that requirement, but acknowledged that “it’s easier to direct how something is done than actually doing it.”

“If anything, the risk is they’re casting the net a little too wide so they do capture all of the intended individuals. Time will tell,” the Westport Democrat said. “They’re going to have to live with the fallback, when these checks start arriving and we find out if there was a significant miscalculation on their part or mistake on their part.”

The bonus program aimed at low-income workers was included within a $4 billion package Baker signed in December to help speed Massachusetts’ recovery during the pandemic.

Baker told lawmakers at the time that he supports the $460 million program, but the second-term Republican had vetoed a section that detailed the contours of it, including a requirement that all the money be distributed by March 31. By doing so, Baker effectively gave his administration full control of how the money will be distributed, when, and to whom.


Baker said he rejected the section primarily because it was intertwined with a requirement that his administration consult with a 28-person advisory panel — made up of appointees from 15 different entities or organizations — before determining who could receive the money. The inclusion of the panel, Baker argued, “further complicated” the program in a way that was “virtually guaranteed to significantly hinder disbursement of the funds.”

Democratic lawmakers never sought to override Baker’s veto.

Similar to Baker’s criteria, the program, as crafted by the Legislature, would have reserved payments for low-income workers who make up to 300 percent above the federal poverty limit.

Lawmakers had called for bonuses ranging between $500 and $2,000 per worker, and sought to ensure they went to those who worked in person during the state’s 16-month state of emergency, such as health care workers, grocery store staff, or public transportation workers. House officials said last year that there could be 800,000 front-line workers in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t clear how many could ultimately qualify.

The state also set aside another $40 million for bonuses up to $2,000 for “front-line” state employees who were required to work in-person during the winter of 2020 to 2021.

Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chairman, said after speaking with labor groups, lawmakers determined that defining “working from home or not can get pretty tricky.”

“Creating the income level [requirement] was the critical component,” the North End Democrat said. “Those were folks who were working during the middle of the pandemic during some of the most critical times, trying to keep our economy afloat during an unprecedented set of circumstances. And because of the income level, those are the folks who would benefit the most.”


Baker administration officials admitted their approach to rely solely on tax data is over-inclusive, but that they believe they’re still adhering to the spirit of the law.

The state also intends to set up a hot line residents can call with questions about the program, the details of which have also been posted to the state’s website. Officials acknowledged, however, that most people will likely find out that they are eligible when the check arrives in the mail.

Tim Foley — the executive vice president of 1199 SEIU, which represents 75,000 Massachusetts health care workers — said the criteria of Baker’s program are “not perfect,” and acknowledged that there are many workers who likely fall into the unfortunate middle ground of making too much to qualify for a bonus check but would still be considered by many measures to be low-income.

“There’s a balance you need to reach between urgency and accuracy and getting it right. I think this strikes the right balance,” he said of the program. “We want to see the details of how that next round of money would be used, but the first cut is a reasonable approach.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.