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'Premium Pay': Massachusetts Sending $500 Checks To Half A Million Low-Income Workers In March

BOSTON (CBS) -- "Premium pay" bonuses for eligible Massachusetts workers will start going in the mail in March, Gov. Charlie Baker's administration announced Tuesday.

Half a million low-income workers will be the first to get $500 payments from the COVID-19 Essential Employee Premium Pay program, approved by the Legislature as part of a $4 billion spending plan funded by the American Rescue Plan Act. A total of $250 million will be mailed out to 500,000 people by the end of March, Baker said.

"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 in a statement. "This program will support those workers who served our communities, especially early in the pandemic."

The legislation Baker signed into law in December called for payments of between $500 and $2,000 for essential employees who worked in-person - not remotely - during the state of emergency that was declared on March 10, 2020 and lasted for more than a year. But Baker's administration, in an effort to get money out the door as fast as possible, is determining eligibility for this round of payments solely based on 2020 tax return information, as there wasn't a faster way to assess who worked in-person and who didn't during the state of emergency. And the administration decided to keep the check amount at $500 to get money to more people.

In order to qualify, a person's total income for their 2020 tax return must be below 300% of the federal poverty level. That means single filers with no dependents cannot make over $38,280 in order to get a check. Someone with a spouse and two dependents can have a household income of up to $78,600 to be eligible.

premium pay elgibility
Income eligibility for the premium pay checks (Image credit: Baker Administration)

Baker vetoed a section of the bill that would have set up an advisory panel to determine who exactly would be eligible.

"The law provided for the Administration to design the program and develop eligibility parameters that will ensure this critical support is provided quickly to deserving workers across the Commonwealth," Baker's office said in a statement.

Isolina Barros, a Certified Nursing Assistant at Alliance Healthcare in Braintree says she will use her $500 bonus to go on a vacation.

"Myself, I will take a vacation to be honest with you because for the last two years I worked straight," Barros said.

Barros recalls the first days of the pandemic when the state was shut down and COVID was ravaging nursing facilities.

"Everybody was scared because we didn't know how to deal with the COVID. Because we lost patients here. And I lost a co-worker," she said.

Other essential workers, like some grocery workers, argue they worked under similarly trying conditions but are not eligible to receive the bonus payment because they make more than the maximum income requirement.

"I have been here between six and seven days a week. We didn't get our vacations, a lot of us. It's almost like the governor is penalizing us for keeping his state open," said Cheryl Ferullo, a Stop & Shop employee and union steward.

Anyone who received unemployment compensation in 2020 will not be eligible for the first round of payments, and neither will executive branch employees who already got or will get a one-time payment from the state as their employer.

The Legislature set aside $500 million for the premium pay fund, meaning the state is doling out half of it now. About $40 million is being used to fund previous agreements with state employee unions. Baker's office said it will release plans to distribute the remaining money in the future.


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