WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is scrambling to send one-time stimulus payments to millions of Americans starting as soon as this week, as the U.S. government races to implement a $900 billion coronavirus aid package that President Donald Trump signed after days of delays.
The schedule corresponds with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's earlier promise to dispatch stimulus checks to families this week - a plan later thrown into turmoil after Trump initially refused to sign the stimulus package. Trump had attempted to secure last-minute changes to the bill after it passed the House and the Senate, but his own party did not support some of his demands and he relented on Sunday.
The Treasury Department is able to move more swiftly than usual to deposit checks for as much as $600 into Americans' bank accounts as a result of its earlier work this spring, when it disbursed larger sums under an earlier stimulus program. Americans who previously obtained their federal tax refunds through direct deposit were among the first to receive their payments at the time. Those receiving paper checks had a longer wait for the aid.
The electronic deposits could go out Wednesday and Thursday in large tranches, according to a senior official at the Internal Revenue Service, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the agency's early plans. It remains unclear, however, if other obstacles might ultimately result in delays - particularly given the holiday week and its impact on staffing at major banks. A senior treasury official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the agency was sticking to the same targeted timeline as Mnuchin recently outlined - but signaled that the timing could change.
The last-minute rush to send the stimulus checks reflects the gargantuan task facing the U.S. government as it aims to deliver new financial assistance quickly enough to avert a deeper dip in an already battered U.S. economy.
Federal agencies had been bracing for the prospect of an abrupt government shutdown. Now, the Trump administration is racing to distribute a wide array of funds, including those that aim to boost cash-strapped businesses and help unemployed workers at risk of losing their benefits. Trump's earlier standoff with Capitol Hill over the stimulus - which cleared the House and Senate with bipartisan support - has since jeopardized the swift delivery of some of those funds.
"While it's a huge relief that the bill is being signed, Donald Trump's tantrum has created unnecessary hardship and stress for millions of families," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement late Sunday.
The uncertainty about the programs reflects the urgent circumstances of the country's recent economic decline. Many labor groups, businesses and state and local governments had pleaded with Congress and the White House since the summer to strike a deal on new stimulus funds. Programs authorized under the government's last relief package, the $2 trillion Cares Act, began to expire in July.
Now, the process of distributing the $900 billion is set to start in the final days of the Trump administration, just as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter the White House. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Mnuchin are all vacationing this week, though a treasury representative previously said Mnuchin and Trump have been in contact.
With the stimulus payments, the Treasury Department and IRS think they can move swiftly after ironing out all the glitches they encountered implementing the Cares Act in spring. Since then, more Americans have filed their tax returns electronically, meaning the government is expected to issue far fewer paper checks, according to the senior IRS official. Those who do receive paper checks are likely to see Trump's name printed on them, similar to what occurred earlier this year, the source added.
In addition to the emergency relief funds, the newly enacted law directs the government to appropriate $20 billion for coronavirus testing, for example, and $8 billion for vaccine distribution. It allocates $13 billion in fresh money to help families afford food, and $10 billion to help parents cover the cost of child care. There is new aid to boost arts programs and expand the availability of high-speed Internet access. And lawmakers set aside billions more to ensure that families can stay in their homes - and transit agencies could literally keep the trains running on time.
Even the mere availability of relief already appeared to offer the economy a slight jolt Monday, as Southwest Airlines announced that it would not need to slash its workforce or reduce wages after Trump opted to sign the legislation. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 204 points, or 0.7%, as investors cheered the prospect of stimulus-aided economic growth.
But the president's delay in signing still raised the prospect that it could be a little longer before some of the money reached those who need it most.
The new stimulus offers critical help to roughly 14 million Americans, for example, who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. But it may take weeks for state agencies to implement the new policy - and boost other jobless workers' pay - leaving some workers facing the real prospect that they will not receive their checks for an extended period. Colorado, for example, warned its residents on Monday that it cannot even begin to reprogram its computers until the federal government shares key policy guidance.
"Every day this went without signing, states couldn't put any implementation language into their computer systems," said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for unemployed workers.
Workers eventually will receive back-due benefits that they were eligible to claim once their states' systems catch up. Trump's refusal to sign the stimulus law before Sunday initially raised the possibility that millions of Americans essentially might lose a week of pay because the $900 billion stimulus did not take effect in time. But the Labor Department said late Monday that it "does not anticipate" that unemployed workers will miss out on this money after all.
Wyden earlier in the day urged Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to "do all he can to prevent these Americans from losing a week of income."
The sprawling stimulus package also includes more than $284 billion for new loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, and $20 billion for targeted grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program. These programs are both run by the Small Business Administration. The money reprises two popular programs from the Cares Act and expands their eligibility, though federal officials conceded that it may take some time before they can start accepting applications for aid.
The morning after Trump signed the legislation into law, there was little information about how still-struggling businesses could apply for new funding. Christopher Hatch, a spokesman for the SBA, said that agency and Treasury were working to ensure "the next round of PPP is launched as quickly as possible."
Along with Treasury, the SBA "is working expeditiously to identify changes to program rules forms, and processes as laid out in the legislative text, and to appropriately update guidance and systems for PPP lenders and borrowers," Hatch said.
The PPP has been widely credited with helping millions of businesses keep employees on the payroll in the pandemic's earlier months. Yet the program's spring launch was dogged by confusion over how borrowers could access loans, and the initial pot of funding ran dry in 13 days as large chains swooped in. Many smaller businesses were later forced to cut workers after their funds ran out, even as national brands stayed afloat.
Many American consumers and businesses are waiting anxiously to see how the programs roll out.
Matthew Sears, 32, lost his restaurant job in mid-March. In the months it took Congress to pass another stimulus package, and the extra days it took Trump to sign the bill, Sears braced for Dec. 26, the day his unemployment benefits were set to expire. As he fell behind on rent, Sears said he was "preparing to get evicted" from his Austin, Texas apartment and figured it was only a matter of time before a notice was clipped near his unit.
Sears said that if he receives his $600 stimulus check in the coming days, and if there isn't a gap in his unemployment payout, he should be able to scrape together enough rent and negotiate the remainder with the apartment complex. In the meantime, he said he knows that scores of other restaurant workers whose jobs haven't returned rely on the same amount of aid to feed their families and keep roofs over their heads.
“If everything goes as planned, I think I should be good,” Sears said. “I’ll have to do some bargaining with my management company, but thinking about all of the evictions they’ll be filing, I think I’ll be one they won’t be as worried about, even if it takes another few weeks or so to even out my balance.”