They Set Aside Money for Their Commutes. Now They Can’t Get It Back.

Many people working from home or out of a job can’t access the hundreds of dollars deducted from their paychecks for transit expenses. “I’m unhappy because it’s a lot of money,” one woman said.

By Winnie Hu

Any bit of savings helped when Eileen Damore was spending more than $400 a month to travel by train and subway from her Long Island home to her job at a printing company in Manhattan.

So she enrolled in a benefit that allows commuters to deduct up to $270 a month from their paycheck for transit expenses while lowering their taxable income. But when Ms. Damore, a pricing manager, started working from home early last year because of the pandemic, the transit benefit kept being taken out of her paycheck until she remembered to stop it.

Now, she has $662.50 that she cannot use or get back.

“It wasn’t top of mind to stop the deduction,” Ms. Damore said.

The unused benefits have become another headache for many commuters in New York, where more people use public transit than in any other American city and where the pandemic has emptied out subways, trains and buses.

The benefits, which aim to reward commuters for taking transit to work, could now end up costing people money instead.

Many commuters have hundreds or even thousands of dollars tied up in transit benefits — money they earned and cannot use for other purposes like bills and mortgages. And they risk losing these benefits entirely if they are laid off or change employers, or if they simply do not go back to taking public transit.

Before the pandemic, about one million people commuted daily to New York from surrounding suburbs, according to a 2019 city planning report. Of those commuters, about 61 percent used transit, while 38 percent drove.

“I hear from people when they’re unhappy and this is one of the biggest things they’re unhappy about,” said Gerry Bringmann, the chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, an advocacy group for riders, who has received dozens of complaints about money locked up in transit benefits.

The issue has even fueled a black market for Long Island Rail Road passes, Mr. Bringmann said. Commuters are using transit benefits to buy passes and then selling them at a discount to recoup some of their money.

A bipartisan congressional group representing Long Island and Queens, including Representatives Kathleen M. Rice and Thomas R. Suozzi, have urged the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service to consider options to help people who have accumulated unused commuting benefits during the pandemic.

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