Many are waiting for the cash to start flowing

Bill moving in Congress but reps say state action needed

BEFORE THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic started, 34-year-old Emmanuel Mondesir of Dorchester was working two part-time jobs – one making deliveries for a pizzeria and the other as an Uber Eats driver, shuttling meals to hungry millennials in the Greater Boston area.

He was laid off from his pizza delivery job just before the virus ramped up and now his Uber Eats gig is going nowhere with the closure of so many restaurants. What was once a $700-a-week part-time job earned him $110 this week, not enough to cover the $1,000 a month he pays to live in a rooming house or the expenses he pays for his daughter, who lives with her mother.

Like many contract workers without unemployment insurance, Mondesir is looking to government for a helping hand. “Anyone who is in my position or is low-income is very stressed out,” he said. “I have all the worries in the world right now. I think if they don’t go with cash assistance, the situation is gonna get worse.”

Cash assistance is the term being used in the midst of the coronavirus crisis for government stepping in and funneling cash to individuals. Congress, after lengthy negotiations in the Senate, appears poised to pass a $2 trillion stimulus package that would start the money flowing, although differences between the two branches need to be resolved. Here in Massachusetts, a number of lawmakers are pushing bills that would send additional cash from the state to residents, but none of those have gained any traction yet.

The US Senate is working on legislation that would provide a one-time payment of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. Married couples would get $2,400. Payments would be scaled back for those who earn over $75,000 a year. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the package will give an additional $600 a week to those who are unemployed.

The US House has its own stimulus bill, which would provide $1,500 per person, in multiple payments, plus $600 a week for those who are unemployed. Democrats in the House have included a clause that would require higher earners to pay back part or all of the assistance within 10 years if their income is over $75,000 as a single filer.

At the state level, Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton and Boston Rep. Liz Miranda are hoping their cash assistance bills will win approval quickly and help Massachusetts residents pay their bills until the federal money starts flowing. Neither rep was able to provide a cost estimate for their legislation. Gouveia said that is because the data she accessed to write the bill doesn’t break income data down for family size or income level.

Her bill aims to help people like Mondesir. It was the first state cash assistance bill filed during the coronavirus crisis, and would provide $1,000 for adults who meet income standards and $500 per dependent.

Gouveia sees a big need. “We’re in Massachusetts, which has a strong knowledge economy. There’s a lot of sole proprietors who aren’t getting unemployment,” said Gouveia.

Miranda filed an “Act providing emergency access to equity and justice for all in response to COVID-19” last week that would provide even more cash assistance, saying her district is one of the poorest areas in the state and was already “left behind” before coronavirus shutdowns.

The legislation provides cash assistance of up to $1,500 monthly with dependent stipends of up to $750 to families. One of the main differences of her bill from Gouveia’s, Miranda says, is the inclusion of a clause that would protect people already on public benefits from losing them in the event that they receive cash assistance.

“I knew if assistance is viewed as countable income, it could count against them” she said. “These are unprecedented times. We’re giving this money to families so they can get their basic needs met.”

Miranda said many people in her district are independent contractors who do not qualify for unemployment.

Miranda said she’s thankful that the federal government is moving closer to a deal, but the need for state help must come now.

“More than ever, we need to invest directly in people with emergency cash assistance and small business grants from the state and federal government that will prevent the most vulnerable workers, such as independent contractors, gig economy workers, service workers, small business owners and sole proprietors from severe poverty,” she said.

Miranda said she is working with House leaders to find funding. “There are two potential sources of revenue,” she said. “We’re looking at the $3.5 billion in the rainy-day fund, and federal dollars in the stimulus package.”

Gouveia also see the need for the state to act. “Our families are suffering economic impacts ahead of much of the rest of the country and our higher cost of living means that our families are struggling in unique ways, requiring additional state support,” she said.

Other short-term relief bills have cropped up, including a one-time supplemental cash payment for low-income families, filed by Cambridge Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett. Gov. Charlie Baker has not directly addressed the issue of cash assistance, but he has indicated in a number of comments that he thinks such funding efforts should come from the federal government, which has “far more resources.”

In Maynard, Kimberly Connors, who connected with Gouveia on Facebook, is hopeful the representative’s bill will pass. A contractor for the state’s Department of Education, Connors typically goes to social studies classes and teaches specialized programs such as archeology and Egyptian and Greek Art. With schools shutdown and her paycheck reliant on grant funding, she can’t get paid.

Connor said she has paid her phone and utility bills. “If I don’t spend more than 50 bucks by the end of the month, I’ll be able to barely afford my condo payment for April,” Connors said. After that, it’s a no man’s land.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

If Connors could get in a room with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means chair Aaron Michlewitz, she said she would have one simple message: “We need to work quickly with the Governor to protect the financial well-being of the ones who make the least among us–and don’t have an employer backing us up.”

Both the Speaker and Michlewitz declined comment on specific questions about cash assistance for residents and those who don’t qualify for unemployment, but they sent a joint statement saying the House is “deeply concerned about the hardworking Massachusetts residents who are out of work because of measures far beyond their control. We sincerely appreciate all employees who are taking steps for the greater good in this public health crisis, while understanding the grave economic impact it has on their own families.”