Economy & Work

Unsanitized: Congress Again Taxes the Time of Benefit Recipients

The ridiculous hurdles one must go through to survive.

Unsanitized: Congress Again Taxes the Time of Benefit Recipients

Photo by Heather Kennedy / flickr CC 2.0)

This article is adapted from Unsanitized: The COVID-19 Daily Report put out by The American Prospect. You can find the original publication here.

First Response

The eight-month impasse for additional COVID relief, unconscionable as it may have been, opportunistically gave time and space to those members of Congress most interested in policy. The 5,500-page, entire-session-of-Congress-in-a-bill that passed last night reflects some of their ready-made language. It’s going to take weeks to dig through this thing and fully decipher it, but I’ve already noticed several good measures. Still, Congress cannot help but throw up roadblocks for people who need help.

Let’s start with the good. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial Law got in language to allow bankruptcy filers to discharge debts, even if they missed payments on their mortgage due to the pandemic. They also protected bankruptcy filers from utility shut-offs. During the CARES Act, it emerged that survival payments could be legally commandeered by banks to offset existing debts. This time, that’s explicitly prohibited, and the payments will be properly encoded so banks know not to take them. And 501(c)(6) entities like chambers of commerce and trade associations, while eligible for small business PPP grants, are ineligible if they spend more than $1 million in lobbying.

But the default hardship Congress creates is best exemplified in the unemployment provisions, which many would consider the most important in the bill. As you know, the bill extends two expiring provisions by 11 weeks, until about mid-March. One is called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and it helps gig workers and freelancers, who historically weren’t eligible for unemployment. The other program, Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), adds 13 weeks of benefits when an individual’s initial unemployment (determined at the state level) expires. On top of that, anyone collecting unemployment gets an extra $300 in checks for the next 11 weeks.

It sounds great — not as great as the $600/week in the CARES Act, and not long enough to break through to a robust job market, but more than Congress has really ever offered before as a federal boost. However, then you get to the implementation pieces.

For example, there’s a brand new verification system for PUA. I assume this came out of the unending unemployment fraud investigation in California and expectations of scams everywhere. What it means is that every new applicant for PUA — and there were 455,000 just last week — must substantiate their self-employment within 21 days, through some documentation showing prior work. For those already on PUA, they have 90 days to do this. Previously there was a self-attestation. Now paperwork must be tracked down and forwarded.

There are something close to 10 million people on PUA. There are a bevy of reasons people can be eligible, so no situation is quite the same. The kind of pay that many 1099 workers get — a check without taxes taken out — may not count, because they may need proof of net income. We actually don’t know yet what unemployment systems will require.

It takes time (and free time, we’ve recently learned, costs about $19 an hour) to run this stuff down, especially if you didn’t need it when you went on PUA in March. More important, state offices will now be collecting millions of pieces of documentation, which they must process. If you thought application processing was slow before, wait until this clogs systems.

The thing is, the IRS has this information, employers have this information, credit bureaus or banks might have this information. The burdens could conceivably be placed elsewhere. But that never happens in our atomized country; the worker must suck up the tax on their time.

Meanwhile, there will likely be lapses for PUA and PEUC recipients, because Congress waited too long to renew the programs. Eventually the unemployed will get what’s owed to them, but those few weeks (depending on the state) with no income at all could get dicey. Getting the $300 enhancement could also take a couple weeks to program. In the meantime, haggling with landlords over the rent, or bill collectors who aren’t interested in a lapsed program that won’t give people cash flow for a few weeks? That’s another tax on time.

Then there’s a bizarre PEUC rule. States have programs known as “Extended Benefits” (EB) that can stretch people whose standard unemployment runs out. Because PEUC is at the moment only good for another 11 weeks, it would be proper to switch everyone over, so people can get on before it expires. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re on EB, you stay there, and pick up PEUC after. At that point, PEUC could run out again.

Even things that look like victories just aren’t. For example, so-called “mixed” workers with some nominal 1099 income along with W-2’s (this was me for many years) can get a $100 increase in their unemployment benefits. But states can just nullify the provision at their discretion! States are also required to set up “snitching” websites so employers can report workers who feel unsafe for coming to work or uneasy coming in without hazard pay.

This is of course a pattern. Unemployment benefits are taxable but plenty of people are unaware of that, and will get hit with a giant tax bill. The CARES Act payments were based on the wrong tax year; you can get the money you were owed, but you have to know to do it and file a special form with your tax return. (I follow this stuff pretty closely and I just learned about that.)

These are just little pinpricks at vulnerable people, making them increase their diligence or strategize how to keep survival money flowing, or decide whether to go into work or protect their health. (The loss of guaranteed sick leave doesn’t help matters.) The uniquely American system just throws these people into the system to navigate unclear rules and hurdles.

There are definitely more prominent failures in this legislation: the lack of state and local government relief, the inability to stretch relief measures past the time when immunization will be complete. But in a way, these slights are more consequential. They come from a conservative faction of government that just isn’t on the side of the people they serve. They mean to make benefit recipients suffer for their supper. The point is to make these systems impenetrable; it makes it easier to demonize them, and starve them of funding because they’re “dysfunctional,” or if they get lucky, shut them down. It’s pathological.

Check Me Out

I was on All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC last night discussing the COVID relief bill, here’s the full episode, my segment is at the end, about 52 minutes in.

I was also on the BradCast with Brad Friedman discussing the bill (I get a little more time to talk on this one. Listen here.

Thanks to ProMarket for naming Monopolized one of the best political economy books of 2020. Read the list here.

Ball’s in Your Court, Joe

Interestingly, the relief package did not extend the pause on student loan payments, now set to expire January 31. It was done at the end of this year, but Betsy DeVos added a month. And that’s the point. There’s an expectation now that the executive branch can just pause student loan payments at will, and it’s just a hop and a skip to believing they can cancel the payments, too. We’ll see how Joe Biden reacts to this, as he must now make a decision on whether to extend the pause days after coming into office.

Days Without a Bailout Oversight Chair

270. Only a few exciting days left!

Today I Learned

  • All 5,500 pages of the relief and omnibus packages, the sublime and the ridiculous, is here. The Dalai Lama reincarnation measure, the repeal of the ban on licensing Smokey Bear, the sale of 94 acres in North Dakota to the Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library. All that and more. (House of Reps.)
  • Of course this new strain of COVID is in the U.S., it started popping up in Europe three months ago. (CNBC)
  • Deep dive into decades of exploitation that led to the meatpacking tragedy in the pandemic. (ProPublica)
  • I’m leaving L.A. today for a few weeks and not a moment too soon, as the hospital system is swamped. Tough times for my city. (Los Angeles Times)
  • Corporate America angles to jump the line on vaccination. (Vox)
  • Frontline SEIU workers in Cook County, Illinois going on strike. (SEIU)
  • There’s been very little planning on vaccine distribution beyond the initial stages. That could be by design, to trap Biden. (Talking Points Memo)

David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.