Congress Struggles to Help Constituents Access CARES Act Benefits

As benefits are set to expire, millions haven’t seen their first check. At least one congressional staffer has quit out of frustration.

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2020. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Sipa via AP Images

Congressional offices across the country have been getting slammed with constituent requests throughout the coronavirus pandemic, fielding an unprecedented volume of calls, emails, and letters from people who need help with unemployment claims or desperately need their stimulus check. Constituent service staffers say they’re getting burned out and that the Internal Revenue Service, which has been short-staffed during the crisis, has been ignoring congressional inquiries altogether.

One Democratic staffer, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, said the “radio silence” and inability to get a response from a federal agency is unprecedented, at least in their five years of working for a member of Congress, and has proven “very demoralizing both for the caseworker and the constituent.” This staffer, alone, had taken over 1,200 calls across a span of about two and a half months.

“The IRS basically told us caseworkers to stop using our normal congressional line for tax returns or stimulus checks,” the staffer said. “They gave us this special dedicated line, and I have sent over 100 emails to that line highlighting issues that people have raised to me and I have not gotten a response.” Last week, the staffer received a response to an inquiry about a constituent’s situation for the first time since the pandemic began.

As congressional leaders prepare to face off on the possibility of a second, even more means-tested round of stimulus checks, an estimated 30 to 35 million people are still waiting to receive the first one, according to a House Ways and Means Committee report last month. Many of the people who have not received their check are among those who need it the most, including millions of Social Security recipients, people with fixed incomes or lower incomes, and homeless people. Those who haven’t received their check are being told they’ll have to wait until they file their 2020 tax return to claim it. Others, who have received an Economic Impact Payment Notice 1444 in the mail but never got the check, can request a payment trace from the IRS, which takes an estimated six to eight weeks.

Though the IRS says that more than 150 million of the stimulus payments were sent out smoothly, the process has been marred by irregularities and complicated by the closure of IRS offices and lack of adequate staffing — the result of a deliberate, yearslong defunding of the tax collection agency by the GOP. Tens of millions have fallen through the cracks, and those trying to track down their check can’t seem to get any answers. In fact, an entire community dedicated to the stimulus checks has popped up on Reddit, as Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein recently noted, including thousands of members who ask questions, pass on advice, and vent about the bureaucratic nightmare.

“I just feel so dejected…if one person can please provide some clarity on WHO or WHERE I should go, it would be greatly appreciated,” read one post. “Times are tough. I’m lucky enough to get by during this lockdown, but it’s getting too tight.”

There have been countless glitches in the process. To speed up the delivery of payments, for example, the Treasury Department began mailing prepaid debit cards to 4 million people in May. The debit cards were sent in plain white envelopes that did not indicate the mail was coming from the IRS or Treasury, leading many recipients to accidentally throw out the federal payments, mistaking it for a scam or junk mail, as the Washington Post reported.

According to the IRS commissioner, thousands of employees in seven states began returning to work in early June. Employees in Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Utah, Tennessee, and Texas are back at their facilities while employees in four more states and Puerto Rico reopened later in the month. As a result of the confusing distribution, short-staffed offices, and agency’s poor communication, people looking for their checks and even congressional offices have found it impossible to get help from the IRS. But many of the agency’s issues predate the pandemic, as a 2018 ProPublica investigation detailed, years of drastic budget cuts have gutted the IRS and hurt its ability to carry out basic functions.

Case workers in the district offices of Democratic Reps. John Larson of Connecticut, Karen Bass of California, Katie Porter of California, and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, have reportedly said they are under particular pressure to get answers for their constituents and feel helpless at the inability to do so. California Rep. Ro Khanna’s office also confirmed that the IRS has been unresponsive. For the most part, offices have been trying to facilitate the process and communicate with the agency by sending letters to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, with little success.

At least one constituent service staffer has resigned from New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s office in frustration, according to two sources familiar with the matter, but most caseworkers are hanging on. Sherrill’s office confirmed that two staffers recently quit, but said one district office staffer was finishing up graduate work and “left to work in a field closely aligned with their studies.”

“As is the case for so many congressional offices, this has been a challenging time for our casework team with an unprecedented volume of calls for assistance with unemployment, IRS economic impact payments, food assistance, and other issues related to the pandemic,” a Sherrill spokesperson told The Intercept in a statement. “This is especially true in New Jersey, where COVID-19 hit earliest and hardest. Between March 16th and now, our team has responded to more than 3,100 constituents who have needed COVID-19 casework assistance.

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Congress is expected to start negotiations on the next coronavirus relief package next week, with only a week to act before the $600 per week boost to unemployment benefits is set to expire. If lawmakers fail to extend the expanded unemployment benefits and other worker protections included in the CARES Act, a multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief package that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law in late March, millions of households could face catastrophic consequences. As coronavirus cases and deaths continue to climb — particularly in the South and the West — unemployment rates remain at historically high levels, and official lockdowns ease, it’s becoming impossible for working-class people to keep up with rent and bills. A survey last week found that 32 percent of U.S. households have not made their housing payments in July yet.

A recent analysis from the Economic Policy Institute projects that cutting off the expanded unemployment that helps households maintain spending is a “terrible idea, both for these households’ welfare and for macroeconomic stabilization.”

Democrats have been calling for another round of checks, with some progressive lawmakers demanding recurring monthly payments, only to be met with fierce Republican opposition. During a recent public appearance, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a stimulus check “could well be” part of the upcoming legislation, but it would be aimed at workers making $40,000 or less. Like the first check, the income threshold would be based on the previous years tax returns, meaning that those who made more money but lost their job in the crisis wouldn’t qualify — despite their current financial troubles. Though it’s unclear how hard McConnell would push to make it happen, as many Senate Republicans and Trump administration officials vehemently oppose the idea of giving vulnerable Americans any cash during a time of crisis.

The CARES Act largely focused on setting aside money for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Billionaires have seen record gains during the pandemic, seeing their fortunes grow by $434 billion, through a combination of tax giveaways and Federal Reserve support for the market. They have had little difficulty claiming their winnings.

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