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Tammy Duckworth wants new parents to claim their $500 coronavirus relief check

May 21, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

After Congress passed its first coronavirus relief package, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth began hearing from constituents: They had young children, so why couldn’t they claim the extra $500 in federal aid for those dependents?

As it turned out, their children were too young. Stimulus checks to individuals are based on 2019 tax returns, so the government didn’t have a system set up to get payments to parents of infants born in the first few months of 2020. “As far as the IRS is concerned, those newborns don’t exist yet,” Duckworth says.

Duckworth, a Democrat, was well-positioned to respond to this problem. In 2018 she became the first senator to give birth while in office; her daughter, Maile Pearl, is now 2. She also has a 5-year-old at home. Factor in her military background briefing the Pentagon on global pandemics, and Duckworth had the experience to approach this issue from all sides. Earlier this month she introduced the Newborn CARES Act, which would allow parents to claim their $500 dependent credit now rather than waiting until filing 2020 taxes. Duckworth didn’t have to secure additional funding for the proposal, instead just moving up the distribution of the existing funding—helping the bill to gain bipartisan support in the Senate.

“Not many of my colleagues are claiming newborn tax credits right now,” Duckworth says, explaining how this issue has slipped through the cracks. She spoke to Fortune about the bill and her experience caring for her family through an intense period of work in Congress. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Fortune: Why was this issue important to you?

Sen. Tammy Duckworth: It’s important to me because so many working families are struggling right now. When you have a child, it should be a joyous moment. Right now, for so many families who’ve had children this year, it’s also a lot of fear involved. Many new parents have been laid off from work, are seeing their finances stretched thin—and then they have a newborn. You’ve got to buy a car seat and the diapers and medicines—then to find out the stimulus payment allows you $500 per dependent, but you can’t access it. My Newborn CARES Act will allow parents of children born this year to access that $500 payment.

Had you heard from constituents who encountered this problem?

The idea for this did come from talking to constituents who reached out and asked, “How come I can’t claim my daughter?” We realized it’s because the stimulus payments are based on the tax year, and as far as the IRS is concerned, those newborns don’t exist yet. That’s something that can be fixed, and I’m proud we were able to get bipartisan support for it.

Did your own experience as a new mother influence your interest in tackling this issue?

Definitely. My younger daughter is just 2 years old. I’m experiencing a lot of things that other moms and dads of young children are experiencing right now. I’m homeschooling my 5-year-old, and the Senate got called back to work. Now that I’m having to go into the Senate, there’s no one here to homeschool my daughter. This is what those grocery store cashiers and first responders and janitors around hospitals [are facing]—they have to go to work, but who’s going to take care of their kids? I have a lot more help; my mom lives with me, for example. But it does make me more attuned to what folks are struggling with during these scary times.

It’s why I jumped on it right away. When we first saw the issue, we said, we have to do something. With my first daughter, she didn’t breastfeed well, so she was on both breast milk and bottle feeding—I remember how difficult it was trying to get the formula for her. I’m just getting over the Caesarean—it’s very scary times. I empathize with the families going through that right now.

Why hadn’t members of Congress caught this loophole earlier?

We’re all moving very quickly. We wanted to get that CARES package out the door as quickly as possible. But then also, it’s an issue where—not many of my colleagues are claiming newborn tax credits right now. I’m pleased I was able to take the lead on it.

What sort of response have you had to this proposal from your colleagues in the Senate?

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) are signed on. At first they were kind of leery because they asked, “Is this going to cost more money?” Once I said no, there’s no additional cost—once we explained that—Tim Scott signed on right away. We stood six feet apart, and I explained it to him.

How do you think Congress has done on other family issues during this crisis?

We have a long way to go. We need national paid family leave. So many people who were forced to quarantine for 14 days had to do it unpaid, and they can’t afford that. This pandemic has shown us how lacking we are in the United States. We’re the leader of the free world, and yet we don’t have paid family leave, we don’t have universal childcare, we don’t have safety systems in place to protect and support the most vulnerable, the children in our midst, and we need to do better.

What has childcare been like for you, both when you were quarantining at home and once you had to go back to Capitol Hill?

It’s been exhausting. The first weeks when we were fully from home—I was even busier than I had been before because I was homeschooling my daughter Abigail. I’m terrified, because I watch her and I can see that she’s regressing with her ABCs and her basic math, and I don’t want her to regress. But then I’ve been on conference calls nonstop. I’m on the phone 10 hours a day.

I’m like a lot of Gen X women—I also have a 79-year-old mom who lives with me. She’s great with helping with childcare, but I’m also helping to arrange her medical appointments. Like a lot of working moms out there, especially those in the sandwich generation, and if we’re the one person in our family who still has a job and hasn’t been laid off—working families are really struggling right now. With respect to all the working dads out there, I think working moms are carrying a lot heavier of a load.