TAMPA — Stimulus deposits started arriving in the bank accounts of working people more than two weeks ago, but for the population most vulnerable to the coronavirus, it has been a long and frustrating wait.
Millions of Social Security recipients, including seniors, the disabled and some low-income families, have yet to receive the federal stimulus payments that run to as much as $1,200. That includes about 4 million Floridians who receive the federal benefit.
In Tampa Bay, hundreds of recipients have reached out to their local members of Congress after being left frustrated and confused by delays and changing advice from the Internal Revenue Service.
Recipients originally were told they would have to file a federal income tax return to benefit from the $2-trillion economic bailout. That was because many did not earn enough to pay taxes in the past two years, so the IRS did not have their current bank account details.
But the AARP opposed that, saying it would disadvantage seniors who don’t have an internet connection or who are not computer savvy.
Instead, the Social Security Administration was ordered to compile and send recipients’ account information to the IRS, prompting another delay. Deposits and checks finally should be sent this week, according to an IRS announcement.
It has been a long wait for a vulnerable population, many of whom are on fixed incomes, said Dave Bruns, a spokesman for AARP Florida. The average Social Security payment is about $1,500 per month. For about one in five seniors in Florida, the payment represents about 90 percent of their incomes, he said.
Nationwide, about 42 million retired workers receive benefits, and another 3 million individuals receive benefits as spouses or children of retired workers, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance.
“Those people have been watching their nickels and dimes and pennies for years. They have very little spare income,” said Bruns. “They didn’t have any good information about when that money is going to arrive, and a there’s been a lot of confusion about who would receive it.”
More than 800 recipients called the offices of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, seeking information on their payment. Another 350 called the office of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, even though his office has been providing regular updates on the coronavirus and the stimulus to about 10,000 of his constituents by email.
“While I do think the IRS could have done a better job communicating this message and setting more clear expectations regarding a timeline, I am glad to know seniors and those on (disability) will receive their payments by the end of this week,” he said in an emailed statement. “I am also relieved that federal government employees worked to ensure all regular Social Security payments were received on time throughout this crisis.”
Democrats sided with the AARP in pushing for seniors to get their stimulus without having to file paperwork.
“Speed is vital during a crisis, and although the Trump administration was not even considering automatic payments to these neighbors, we continued to press, and now most individuals will automatically receive these benefits through direct deposit and without further paperwork, which is much sooner than the IRS’ original plan,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, in an email.
The IRS has defended its performance, noting that it has made some 88.1 million payments worth nearly $158 billion in a little more than two weeks.
Piniellas County resident Richard Ulrich was among those who tried to follow the IRS advice to ensure he would get paid quickly.
Ulrich, 61, suffers from anxiety and depression. He lives alone in Broadwater Place, a 44-unit apartment block for people with disabilities or who were formerly chronically homeless, run by Boley Centers.
After the IRS started sending payments the week of April 12, Ulrich logged onto a new IRS web portal called Get My Payment several times, only to get messages that the system couldn’t locate him.
He then followed advice to complete an online form on a web page for people who don’t file taxes.
Using his smart phone, he filled out the form, only to find that the “submit” button was missing from the screen. He had to go to a friend’s house to use a computer to resubmit the form.
When it finally comes, his stimulus payment will need to stretch far.
His personal computer stopped working after a power surge, which he blames on his apartment’s wiring.
His pickup truck also is out of action, forcing him to ride the bus to get to his pharmacy. He wears a mask, but many of the other passengers do not, he said .
“It’s scary to get on the bus, me being older and having health problems,” he said.
Like many who are considered at high risk from the coronavirus, Ulrich has adapted his daily routines.
He uses disinfectant on his clothes after every trip outdoors. And after reading that loss of smell is one symptom of COVID-19, he opens a jar of cinnamon every morning and sniffs for reassurance.
Stimulus checks have been the No. 1 concern of seniors calling the AARP, said Bruns.
The extra money would help those on fixed incomes who have limited access to food. Some Meals on Wheels services have been suspended because of a lack of volunteers, he said.
It also would mean they can buy enough groceries to avoid having to make frequent trips to the store.
More than 1.1 million seniors in Florida are 75 or older, Bruns said. The pandemic is especially stressful for them, and he hopes government and the public will remember that.
“Many of them were alive during the Great Depression, or they have vivid memories from their families and older siblings,” he said. “This all feels horribly familiar to them.”
This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
HAVE YOU LOST SOMEONE YOU LOVE TO COVID-19?: Help us remember them
UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits
CONTRIBUTE TO THE SCRAPBOOK: Help us tell the story of life under coronavirus
BRIGHT SPOTS IN DARK TIMES: The world is hard right now, but there’s still good news out there
LISTEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS PODCAST: New episodes every week, including interviews with experts and reporters
HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips
GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information, six days a week
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.