Reps. Rice, Meeks, Suozzi, Zeldin, and Garbarino Introduce Bipartisan COVID-19 Commuter Benefits Distribution Act
WASHINGTON – U.S. Representatives Kathleen Rice (NY-04), Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05), Tom Suozzi (NY-03), Lee Zeldin (NY-01), and Andrew Garbarino (NY-02) yesterday introduced the COVID-19 Commuter Benefits Distribution Act. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is leading the companion bill in the Senate with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as an original co-sponsor.
This bipartisan, bicameral bill will provide targeted relief for workers who have accumulated commuter benefits that they can no longer use or no longer need due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Qualified Transportation Fringe Benefit programs allow workers to save money by setting aside pre-tax wages to cover expenses associated with their commute to work, but as the pandemic shuttered offices, disrupted commutes, and transitioned people from working in person to working from home, many individuals accumulated significant funds in their commuter benefit accounts that they are unable to utilize as intended and cannot access for other purposes. The bill would make a temporary exception to current Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations to allow employees to access their unused commuter funds.
The Long Island Delegation sent three letters previously to the Department of the Treasury and the IRS, requesting that they consider any available options to provide targeted relief for individuals who accumulated unused transportation benefits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While they received a positive response to their requests, no action to date has been taken by the Department.
“We are all continuing to acclimate to the effects of the pandemic, and in some cases that means adapting our regulations to support workers’ needs,” said Rep. Rice, “I know that being unable to access their hard-earned wages has been frustrating for many New Yorkers, and I am happy to sponsor a bill that will offer them the flexibility and discretion to use those funds as they wish.”
“As we adjust to our new realities, this legislation provides much-needed economic relief for many families,” said U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “I will fight hard to push this bill through the Senate, which will allow access to unused funds that could be put to use by hard-working families to pay the rent or mortgage, keep the lights on, and put food on the table.”
“I wrote the law establishing permanent parity between mass transit and parking benefits, ensuring the federal benefit program helps New Yorkers save some money with a pre-tax transit deduction each month,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “It’s a great idea and it works for countless commuters, but amid COVID uncertainty many people’s cash piled up in an account the commuter cannot access for other uses. This legislation would provide a pathway for New Yorkers to access their hard-earned money – funds that could be used by families to purchase household essentials, pay bills, and recover from the pandemic.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many factors of our lives including how often we commute to work,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks. “Workers who were unable, or no longer need to use their commuter benefits, should be able to access their funds. Families are struggling as prices rise across the country, and this bill will allow workers to use funds that they have already earned. I will work with my colleagues in the Long Island Delegation, and our Senators to push this bill through.”
“People are suffering economically. This is a common sense fix and it’s fair,” said Rep. Tom Suozzi.
“So many hardworking Americans committed pre-tax money out of their paychecks to commuter benefits, which they were unable to use through no fault of their own during the pandemic,” said Rep. Zeldin, “As the prices of nearly everything continue to rise, it’s more important than ever that Americans are able to access these funds that are rightfully theirs.”
“Historically, hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders commute to work on the LIRR every single day,” said Rep. Garbarino. “With inflation at near 40-year highs and New Yorkers paying more for just about everything, workers should be able to access this unused part of their compensation and be given the flexibility to use transit benefits as they see fit.”
"Tens of thousands of people have millions of dollars tied up in pre-tax transit benefits,” said Gerard Bringmann, chair of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA (PCAC) and the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, and MTA Board Member. “This fix will finally allow them to access those funds for critical expenses like rent and food. People are still adjusting and adapting to their new work schedules and some will be able to again use their transit benefits, but others have changed their commuting patterns for good. These are important and worthwhile programs and we want to encourage transit users to take advantage of these types of benefits as we move into our next normal. On behalf of commuters everywhere, thank you Senators Gillibrand and Schumer and Congresswoman Rice and the Long Island delegation for taking up this important cause."
The full text of the bill can be view here.