This story is current as of 2:45 p.m. on April 9. It will be updated as we learn more.
Freelancers, independent contractors, gig workers and other self-employed individuals don’t typically qualify for unemployment benefits when they lose their jobs. That is no longer the case, under provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act enacted in late March.
But gig workers across the Washington region are reporting an onslaught of problems, delays and confusion when applying for benefits — and when they call their local unemployment offices seeking information, they’re met with extremely long wait times.
WAMU gathered information from unemployment offices in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to get answers for independent contractors trying to collect benefits. Here is everything we’ve learned so far.
I’m an independent contractor or gig worker out of work due to the pandemic. Am I eligible for unemployment insurance?
You probably are, on a temporary basis. The CARES act established a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA. It extends weekly unemployment benefits to the following groups:
- Self-employed individuals;
- People seeking part-time work;
- Existing claimants who have maxed out their unemployment benefits (technically called “exhaustees”);
- Clergy and employees of religious organizations;
- People without sufficient work history normally required to qualify for benefits.
If you’re in one of these groups, you’re eligible if you’re jobless through no fault of your own. You also have to be able and available to work, even if you’re not actively searching for a new job.
How do I apply for benefits?
The best way is to apply online with the unemployment office in the jurisdiction where you last worked, ideally late at night or early in the morning when web traffic is lower.
If you’re a gig worker who works in multiple states — driving a car for Lyft, for instance — you can apply for benefits in any state where you worked. The smart move is to apply in the jurisdiction that gives you the most money. (D.C. pays more than Virginia or Maryland. More on that in the next section.)
But here’s the rub: D.C., Maryland and Virginia are still struggling to adapt to new federal guidelines for independent contractors. As of April 9, no jurisdiction had updated their online applications to accommodate self-employed people, and many gig workers report their claims are still being denied.
D.C.’s Department of Employment Services’ latest guidelines say self-employed people who were denied benefits “will have an opportunity to resubmit an application soon.” If you haven’t applied yet, the city suggests waiting until their system is updated. You can sign up for notifications by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, but the city has offered no timeline or launch date for the updated system.
The Maryland Department of Labor wants self-employed people to hold their applications for PUA benefits until the state’s system is updated. They haven’t indicated when that update will be live, either, but you can sign up for updates on the state DOL website.
Virginia is also scrambling to update its system, but the state has offered a clearer timeline than Maryland or D.C. The Virginia Employment Commission says it plans to have PUA updates later this week, around April 10. Independent contractors who filed a claim for traditional unemployment and were denied will be contacted — either with a text or robocall — on how to file a claim for PUA.
How much money can I get, and for how long?
The maximum payout varies based on where you file. The maximum weekly benefit in Virginia is $378, Maryland’s is $430 and D.C.’s is $444. Claimants can collect benefits for up to 39 weeks, or about nine months.
If you were forced to stop working due to Coronavirus at any time after Jan. 27, 2020, you are eligible to receive benefits for any week after that date. PUA benefits will stop being paid after Dec. 31, 2020.
Isn’t there federal money available for contractors?
Yes. Unemployed independent contractors are eligible for an extra $600 per week, courtesy of the federal government.
The $600 supplement is called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC. Gig workers can collect this money for work lost after March 27, and it will be paid until July 31, 2020. This supplement is rolled into your regular state benefits and you don’t have to apply separately for it.
But self-employed people can’t start collecting the extra $600 until their state approves them for PUA benefits. Virginia says it will start paying the $600 federal supplement as soon as the week of April 13, but this only applies to people who have approved applications by that date.
Remember: Once your unemployment benefits are approved, you have to file a new claim every week to keep getting money.
I couldn’t (or didn’t) apply for unemployment as soon as I stopped working. Can I collect benefits retroactively?
Yes. When you fill out your initial PUA claim in D.C., Maryland and Virginia (and we still don’t know when you’ll be able to) you’ll be asked to provide the date when you last worked. That’s the date that matters; not the date when you applied for benefits.
For example, if you stopped working March 12 but you couldn’t apply for PUA benefits until April 15, you’ll be retroactively paid for those missed weeks once you begin receiving benefits. That includes both the state money and the extra $600 from the feds.