State sending $500 checks to 500,000 low-income workers

Payments based on tax returns, not on whether they worked in person or at home

APPROXIMATELY 500,000 low-income individuals in Massachusetts who worked during the pandemic will receive $500 bonus payments in the mail this March. 

Lt. Governor Karyn Polito said in a statement that the money “will provide meaningful support for individuals who continued to work despite the global pandemic.”  

The premium pay program was established by the Legislature as part of a spending bill using money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Lawmakers said the point of the program was to reward low-income essential workers who worked in person during the pandemic, but the bonuses being distributed by the Baker administration will go out to low-income individuals who worked a certain amount during 2020, regardless of whether they worked in person or remotely.  

Officials with the Executive Office for Administration and Finance said there is no easy way to determine whether someone worked in person or remotely. Eligibility will be based solely on 2020 tax returns, which allows for the money to be distributed quickly. Prior studies have shown that low wage workers were more likely than higher income workers to be working in person during the pandemic, since jobs like retail, driving, restaurant work, and health care cannot be done remotely. 

Under the program, Massachusetts taxpayers will be eligible for the bonus if they earned at least $12,750 in employment income in 2020 – which equates to working 20 hours a week for 50 weeks at minimum wage – and no more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The poverty level depends on household size and 300 percent of the poverty level equals $38,280 for a single person or $78,600 for a family of four.  

Anyone who received unemployment benefits in 2020 will not be eligible, nor will state employees who got a pandemic-related employment bonus from the state. (The Baker administration has inked deals with a number of state employee unions to provide bonuses of up to $2,000 for in-person work during the pandemic.) 

Baker officials are touting the quick implementation of the program, the details of which previously led to a back and forth between Baker and the Legislature. The legislation set out guidelines – the bonuses had to be between $500 and $2,000 and go to people who earned less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill initially envisioned the details being worked out by a 28-member advisory panel, bu. Baker vetoed the advisory panel, saying he wanted the flexibility to get the money out quickly and the panel would “significantly hinder disbursement of the funds.” Baker also vetoed a March 31 deadline for distributing the funds. 

“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. 

The Legislature appropriated $500 million for premium pay, and only half of that will be spent in this first round of checks. Administration officials are using another $40 million to fund premium pay agreements with state employee unions. The rest of the money will be distributed in future rounds.  

Administration officials say because the state of emergency lasted into 2021, another round of payments will likely go out to workers who become eligible based on their 2021 taxes (once those returns are filed) but who did not get a payment in 2020.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The state will set up a website with information and create a phone line people can call with questions.  

House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a statement that the administration’s plan fits with the Legislature’s intent. “When creating the premium pay program, the Legislature was clear in its intent to distribute payments to low-income workers,” Mariano said. “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.”