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Stimulus checks and other coronavirus relief hindered by dated technology and rocky government rollout

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/18/2020 Heather Long, Jeff Stein, Lisa Rein, Tony Romm

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The national effort to get coronavirus relief money to Americans is at risk of being overwhelmed by the worst economic downturn in 80 years, as understaffed and underfunded agencies struggle to deliver funds.

Three weeks after Congress passed a $2 trillion package to lessen the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of households and small businesses are still waiting to receive all the help promised under the legislation, according to government data and firsthand accounts.

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The bulk of the challenges have occurred with three initiatives designed to get cash to struggling Americans: $1,200 per adult relief payments that launched this week, $349 billion in Small Business Administration loans, and $260 billion in unemployment benefits for the more than 22 million people — and growing — out of work.

The SBA ran out of money to make small business loans this week, almost no unemployment aid has reached eligible self-employed and gig workers, and a significant number of Americans who were due to receive relief payments this week went on the IRS.gov website only to see this message: “payment status not available.”

Current and former government officials say it would be a tall order for any president to execute massive new programs in a matter of weeks, and tens of millions of Americans did receive direct deposits worth $1,200 or more this week. But the Trump administration’s promise of swift and effective action — President Trump called the small business program “flawlessly executed” this week — is colliding with a federal and state apparatus not well designed to deliver so much money so fast. 

The technological backbone to much of the relief — including the distribution of relief checks and the unemployment insurance system — requires knowledge of a software programming language not widely used in decades. An administration that had made little priority of keeping senior positions staffed, meanwhile, is struggling now to quickly implement one of the biggest government interventions in history.

If problems continue, it could leave people even less able to pay bills or buy groceries and further exacerbate the economic decline. Politically, it could be highly damaging to Trump, who is continuing to belittle his predecessor’s record of managing complex government operations. 

“Biden/Obama were a disaster in handling the H1N1 Swine Flu. Polling at the time showed disastrous approval numbers. 17,000 people died unnecessarily and through incompetence!” Trump tweeted Friday, adding “Also, don’t forget their 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare website that should have cost close to nothing!" 

The White House on Friday defended its rollout, saying of the 80 million payments made this week, all but 1 percent reached their intended recipients. Trump on Friday called the initiative an “incredible success.”

“We couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday in an interview.

Still, the administration faces a big test as over 70 million additional taxpayers are eligible for relief, and many of those without bank accounts or direct deposit information on file could face lengthy delays.

Among the problems taxpayers reported this week were payments being sent to incorrect bank accounts, failures to include $500 checks for children, and not getting money at all due to a technical glitch involving some accounts of people who used tax preparers.

For example, the IRS sent 300,000 stimulus payments erroneously to accounts held by the bank MetaBank that no longer exists. These accounts are only used temporarily during tax season to receive refunds and figure out what fees go to the tax preparer and what amount goes back to the taxpayer. The bank sent the money back to the IRS, which is now likely to issue paper checks. 

a screenshot of a cell phone: Mandatory Credit: Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10615681b) A computer screen grab shows the glitch millions of Americans encountered when trying to track the status of their coronavirus stimulus checks in Washington, DC, USA, 16 April 2020. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said they are aware of the problem. Response to coronavirus COVID-19 in Washington, DC, USA - 16 Apr 2020 © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Mandatory Credit: Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10615681b) A computer screen grab shows the glitch millions of Americans encountered when trying to track the status of their coronavirus stimulus checks in Washington, DC, USA, 16 April 2020. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said they are aware of the problem. Response to coronavirus COVID-19 in Washington, DC, USA - 16 Apr 2020

The IRS didn’t attempt to send out payments to certain other clients of tax preparers because the system couldn’t find their direct deposit information. The glitch potentially impacts up to 21 million people, according to consumer law expert Vijay Raghavan. The IRS has also used some 2018 taxpayer data, and some people have died or changed banks, further complicating the process.

The IRS said it is aware of the problems, but is limited in what it can do to help quickly. Taxpayers trying to sort out why they got an inaccurate check — or nothing at all when they qualified for a payment — are unable to communicate with the IRS. With the tax filing deadline delayed to July 15, the agency closed the last of its service centers — in Ogden, Utah — early last week, and the IRS had not been able to expand a pilot telework program for phone agents because of the pandemic, the agency said.

Americans were told to use the “Get My Payment” portal on the IRS website to check on the status of their payment and see if they need to input their bank account information. But many people who went on the portal received a message that the IRS doesn’t know the status of their payment. Or they were locked out altogether.

“The IRS systems are still hard-coded,” said John Koskinen, who was IRS commissioner from 2013 to 2017. “It’s not just a keystroke to go into the code and make the change and hope you’ve made it correctly. When you set up a new portal like this, it requires you to get into some very old legacy systems.”

The IRS uses a decades-old software — its “MasterFile” software responsible for processing individual and business tax filings was developed in 1962 — and a computer programming language called COBOL. The stimulus program has required multiple coding changes, and the agency has at least 16 other databases with taxpayer information, none of which easily can communicate with the other, said a person familiar with the matter.

“[The agency] didn’t have the time to think about the outliers,” said a senior IRS official familiar with the agency’s technology operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “You’ve got two filing years. You’ve got divorced people. You’ve got people who’ve changed bank accounts. They simply couldn’t account for every single scenario.”

The IRS raced to stand up the stimulus program with a depleted staff. Overall, the agency had 76,000 employees last June, down from 99,500 in 2010. Dozens of experts in the agency’s legacy computer systems have left or retired, current and former officials said. Starting in 2011, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly sought cuts to the IRS budget.

IRS spokeswoman Jodie Reynolds said: “The IRS delivered this unprecedented effort in record time, delivering the first round of payments less than three weeks after the law was signed. For comparison, the stimulus payments delivered in 2008 took 75 days to begin to reach taxpayers.”

The IRS isn’t the only agency having challenges. The Treasury Department, under Mnuchin, is working to oversee a sprawling rescue — including the IRS — even while its own senior ranks are depleted.

Treasury headed into the crisis with vacancies in more than half a dozen senior positions, some of whom would otherwise be playing key roles in processing the work, according to critics of the administration. Mnuchin does not have a chief of staff, for instance, or an undersecretary for domestic finance, a role responsible for monitoring large changes in the U.S. economy. 

In the interview, Mnuchin strongly disputed that he had allowed key vacancies in the Treasury Department, pointing to a long list of officials in top positions and saying Congress should move faster to confirm his appointees. Treasury has two deputy chiefs of staff.

Mnuchin personally reviews department news releases and informational pages, while also interacting frequently with lawmakers, Federal Reserve officials, the SBA, foreign banking ministers, and international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, according to the people in close contact. On top of that, Mnuchin was also intimately involved much of this week in crafting the federal rescue package for the federal airlines.

With Mnuchin personally absorbed in implementing the first major bailout package, the administration has not made much progress on an additional congressional package that both parties believe is necessary to dramatically increase the size of the loan program for small businesses.

“People will say I’m a micromanager and involved in lots of details,” Mnuchin said in an interview. “A lot of money has been allocated to us by Congress and I want to be involved in understanding the details.”

He added, “If I’m a bottleneck, I’m happy I’m a bottleneck — getting a lot done.”

Mnuchin was critical to sealing the deal over the stimulus last month, but in his absence, progress on another measure to expand funding for small businesses has been slow, according to multiple congressional aides. Mnuchin said in an interview he has continued to negotiate closely with Democrats this week on fixes to the small-business program.

Democrats have demanded additional help for hospital workers and other concessions alongside increasing small business lending. Republicans have resisted, although on Friday they suggested a willingness to trade for more SBA funding.

The SBA has rapidly run out of money as businesses clamor for funds. The initial bill approved by Congress included about $349 billion in loans for the small business program, but within days it became clear the money would not last long, and the administration has already asked for an additional $250 billion.

A separate emergency loan program, meant as a bridge for small firms as they wait, was overwhelmed after receiving more than 3 million applications.

The unemployment safety net system, run by the Labor Department and the states, has been equally deluged as more than 22 million Americans have been laid off or furloughed since Trump declared a national emergency on March 13.

Unemployment insurance is a federal program, but each state administers it for its residents. Many states were unprepared for the rush, which caused websites to crash repeatedly and forced people to call dozens of times a day to try to get through.

Many states have such outdated technology — which also rely on decades-old software — that their systems have struggled to make unemployment aid available for gig workers and self-employed workers who don’t normally qualify for money but were made eligible by the new law.

“Our systems are barely keeping up with the overwhelming volume,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), whose state has advertised jobs recently seeking people proficient in old programming languages.

Florida has resorted to handing out paper applications and said this week it has a backlog of 850,000 applications. So far, the state has sent money to only 34,000 people.

Among those still waiting for their first check is Khalid Mahmood, 66, an Uber driver in Woodbridge, Va.

Mahmood had been driving for the ride-hailing company to supplement his Social Security income, which by itself isn’t enough to cover his rent and other monthly bills, but had to stop as the coronavirus shuttered businesses statewide. Since then, he’s tried and failed to obtain unemployment aid.

“No records found,” Virginia’s site keeps telling him.

“Most of my friends who are Uber drivers, they have had no money since the day they stopped working,” Mahmood added, estimating they’ve been without a check for over a month now. “They are in a very bad situation.”

But even people who don’t have complicated situations aren’t getting aid.

Michael McCleary, a longtime hotel concierge worker at a prominent Washington, D.C., hotel, applied for unemployment insurance on March 20. At first, the system said he had an “unresolved issue” and would be contacted if more information was needed. He called the office daily to try to fix it. On Thursday, he waited on hold for nearly three hours only to be disconnected.

At 2 a.m. Friday morning, he logged into the portal again and saw he had finally been approved — a month after he applied.

“I’m monitoring my bank account to make sure it goes through. It should be a matter of days before I get a direct deposit,” McCleary, 63, said. “There’s just so much uncertainty."

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