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Stimulus money should begin arriving next week, Mass. delegation says

The Massachusetts State House in Boston.
The Massachusetts State House in Boston.Barry Chin

With direct cash aid to many Americans and expanded unemployment benefits set to start flowing as soon as next week, members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation said Wednesday that they are already planning the next round of federal relief.

The coronavirus outbreak will likely continue for several more weeks or months, and lawmakers said even the historic $2 trillion relief package President Donald Trump signed into law Friday — the third piece of federal legislation responding to the emergency — will need to be supplemented with funding for the postal system, community health centers and potentially even additional checks for residents.

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“We need a fourth package here,” Rep. Jim McGovern said during a Wednesday conference call with the state’s full House delegation. “We’re going to have to analyze what we’ve done to find out what is missing, what is not working as well as it needs to, where there are areas that have somehow not been addressed.”

Some aspects of the $2 trillion relief package, often referred to as the CARES Act, are already open to the public, but the timeline for several components affecting workers remains unclear.

Rep. Katherine Clark said the goal in Washington is to begin making electronic deposits by April 6 to low- and middle-income residents who have direct deposit information on file with the federal government.

Americans who earn less than $75,000 annually qualify for checks of $1,200 each, with an additional $500 for each child younger than 17. The amount of the check decreases for those with income above $75,000, and those with $99,000 or more in individual earnings do not qualify.

Clark also said federal agencies will provide information to states this week about how to make unemployment assistance newly available to workers who were self-employed or contracted.

Gov. Charlie Baker warned workers not to apply for unemployment benefits unless they qualify under the existing unemployment insurance system. Until federal guidance comes down, he said, states cannot direct help to those newly eligible under the aid package.

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“We are pushing the Department of Labor to get this technical information to the states as quickly as possible because people really do need the expanded unemployment insurance eligibility and also to be able to access the extra $600 per week coming from the federal government,” Clark said. “We anticipate they will have this within the next few days, but we are working and pushing them because we know how critical this funding is.”

The expanded eligibility comes as America grapples with a record level of unemployment claims. Rep. Lori Trahan said community action agencies have experienced “a shocking increase in demand” as a result of unemployment spikes in Massachusetts.

Applications are already open for disaster loans newly made available through the Small Business Administration.

Many will qualify for $10,000 advances to pay bills initially. A separate Paycheck Protection Program will award loans up to $10 million for businesses with 500 or fewer employees to keep workforces employed, and those loans can be forgiven if the funding is used for payroll costs.

Massachusetts business owners should pursue small business aid as soon as possible, Rep. Bill Keating said, because the federal government will process applications on a “first come, first serve basis.” He warned that some reports indicate it can take up to five hours to complete the application.

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Keating’s southern Massachusetts district, he said, “is as hard-hit as anything I’ve ever seen,” particularly restaurants and hotels.

“This is a seasonal industry,” he said. “If they don’t make their money in the late spring, summer and early fall, they’re out of business.”

Representatives said during the call that it is difficult to quantify in a single number exactly how much money Massachusetts will receive from the $2 trillion federal package.

The state is in line for more than $3.8 billion in funding, according to some formulas, including $2.67 billion for state and local governments and more than $1 billion for public transit, but it will also receive substantial funding through programs at the discretion of federal agencies or based on applications.

Language in the bill freezing required payments on federal student loans will affect about 855,000 borrowers in Massachusetts that are “already crushed with record levels of student debt,” according to Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

They will not be required to make payments through Sept. 30, 2020. In the interim, no interest or late fees on federal student loans will accrue, and those who pause their payments will not suffer credit score effects.
Talks have started about the next federal package, members of the delegation said, including the logistics of starting to deliberate while both branches are on recess.

Lawmakers highlighted several areas they want to see the fourth bill address. Rep. Stephen Lynch said Congress needs to direct more funding to the United States Postal Service as it adjusts to the new reality, particularly to prepare for widespread voting by mail that may be necessary to conduct elections without endangering public health.

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Others said the federal government needs to do more to procure and produce personal protective equipment and to build on funding in the CARES Act for community health centers. McGovern said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will need a “boost” in the next package.

Asked if Congress was considering issuing checks in addition to the $1,200 many residents will recieve, McGovern said yes. Rep. Joe Kennedy III noted that $1,200 “doesn’t get you all that far in Massachusetts.”

“We need to be clear-headed about the fact that there’s going to be more that we need to do,” he said. “If this goes on for a while, we’re going to have to come back again and again to make sure we’re helping people get through this.”