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State sending $500 payments to half a million low-income workers

About 500,000 low-income workers across Massachusetts will get a $500 payment from state government next month as the Baker administration rolls out the first premium pay program of its type in the nation, the Executive Office of Administration and Finance announced Tuesday afternoon.

The premium pay program was created in the $4 billion COVID-19 relief law that Gov. Charlie Baker signed in December. His team has been assembling the program after he vetoed sections favored by the Legislature that would have created a 28-member panel to design the program and determine eligibility. His veto has stood.

Residents 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% of the federal poverty level ($38,280 for a single filer). A finance official said there will be a state website to help people determine their own eligibility but that most people would find out when they get a check in the mail. No one who received unemployment payments in 2020 will be eligible.

"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."

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. Future rounds will be based on 2021 tax return information and anyone who receives a payment in the first round will not be eligible for payment in a future round, officials said.

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