BOSTON (State House News Service) – As legislative leaders review his veto of a related section, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration said Tuesday that it has already begun to design the frontline worker premium pay program that the Legislature had wanted to be shaped by a new 28-member commission and expects to meet the Legislature’s original deadline for checks to be distributed.
When he signed the great majority of the $4 billion COVID-19 relief bill Monday, Baker also vetoed a policy section that required a large commission be consulted before premium pay could be awarded to frontline employees who worked during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The governor said his veto would allow his administration to “immediately begin the process of distributing these funds.”
“We could send out $500 checks to almost 1 million Massachusetts residents as soon as possible,” Baker wrote in his filing letter Monday.
An official in Baker’s budget office said Tuesday that the administration has already begun designing what would be the first premium pay program of its type in the nation, but did not answer questions about the eligibility criteria being used or the process that led to any eligibility decisions.
As long as the governor’s veto is not overridden, the Executive Office of Administration and Finance expects to be processing payments by the March 31 deadline included in the vetoed section, the official said.
As Baker did in his filing letter Monday, the A&F official said Tuesday that an override of the veto would slow the process of getting payments out the door. “Reinstituting the panel-driven process envisioned by the Legislature will simply disrupt the rollout midstream,” Baker told lawmakers.
House Speaker Ron Mariano said Monday that he had “requested a timeline from the Administration on when they would be able to get the money out to essential workers so we can make an informed decision” about whether to override Baker’s veto.
Meanwhile, the House clerk’s office is researching whether or how Joint Rule 12B, which governs the shelf life of budget legislation that remains unfinalized as the first year of the legislative session ends, applies to the ARPA and surplus spending bill.
The governor and Legislature are in agreement on the aims of the premium pay program, but the governor said the commission-centered approach the Legislature favors — in which a 28-person panel would be appointed and convened to make recommendations before any payments go out the door — is “virtually guaranteed to significantly hinder” the delivery of the relief money.
“We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people,” Baker said even before he vetoed the section to give himself the ability to do just that.
The premium pay program was spread across three different sections of the bill — Section 73 establishes the COVID-19 Essential Employee Premium Pay Fund itself, Section 79 created the 28-member Premium Pay Advisory Panel that lawmakers wanted to be consulted about eligibility and program design, and Section 82 requires that $500 million be deposited into the premium pay fund within 14 days of the law’s effective date.
Baker vetoed Section 79 and with it the limited eligibility criteria prescribed by lawmakers.
That section 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.”
Without that language, the law specifies only that the purpose of the premium pay program is “to issue direct financial support to eligible essential workers for in-person work performed during the state of emergency declared by the governor on March 10, 2020” but otherwise does not define eligibility for most workers.
The one group of workers whose eligibility appears not to be in question is frontline state workers. Section 82 of the legislation also mandates that $40 million “be distributed by the secretary of administration and finance for 1-time payments not to exceed $2,000 to front-line state employees required to work in-person during the winter of 2020 to 2021.”