Independent contractors in California will be able to start applying for federally funded unemployment benefits in two weeks and receive payments within 24 to 48 hours, state Labor Secretary Julie Su said in a letter released Tuesday.
The benefits, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, are coming from the federal government under the Cares Act. People who are not eligible for regular state unemployment benefits — because they are self-employed, have run out of regular benefits or didn’t work enough to get them — can apply for the new pandemic benefits if they have become partially or fully unemployed because of the coronavirus. Applicants will be able to “self-certify” that they meet the “Covid-19-related criteria” for assistance, Su wrote.
“We need two weeks to create this new technology — set up the system, test it and be able to turn payments around,” Su wrote. She added that these payments “will not take the three weeks from application to payment” that regular unemployment benefits have been taking, unless the claims have missing information. “This new system will be able to pay individuals within 24 to 48 hours of their application.”
Su said the state will set up a “one-stop shop” where people can apply for both regular benefits and the new pandemic ones.
The two benefits differ in several ways:
• Regular state benefits are funded by a tax on the state’s employers. Pandemic benefits are coming from the federal government.
• Pandemic benefits can be claimed retroactively to Jan. 27, and through Dec. 31, 2020, depending on when the person lost work because of the coronavirus, for a maximum of 39 weeks.
Regular benefits are not retroactive; they can’t begin until a worker files a claim. They last for up to 26 weeks in California, although the Cares Act provides federal funding for an additional 13 weeks, for a maximum of 39 weeks.
• Pandemic benefits could be higher for lower-earning workers. The minimum pandemic benefit will be $167, which is half the average regular state unemployment benefit.
The minimum state benefit is only $40. The maximum benefit for both programs is $450 per week.
People receiving both types of benefits will get an extra $600 per week — also from the federal government — starting the week ending April 4 through the end of July. That brings the maximum benefit for both to $1,050.
Su did not explain how people applying for pandemic benefits will report their income nor how it will be verified. The state can check payroll records for employees.
What’s also unclear is how which benefits people will get if they should be classified as employees under AB5 and other state laws, but are still being paid as independent contractors.
On its website, the Employment Development Department has been telling self-employed people they can file for unemployment benefits. It says if you are a business owner, self-employed or independent contractor, you should list yourself as your last employer. If you are a “gig worker,” you should “list your gig employer” as your last employer. And if you “believe you are misclassified as an independent contractor instead of an employee,” you should list the business you contract with as your last employer and include its name, address, phone number and details about your work performed and “gross wages.”
That made it sound like the state would treat gig and misclassified workers as employees for unemployment. The department has not responded to questions about how these claims are being treated.
Su, however, wrote that federal guidelines “include gig workers as an example of those eligible” for pandemic benefits. She says the state wants to “clarify the options available to gig workers, and that we don’t set up applications that sit in a queue while we do not yet have the systems built to deliver the money.”
She added, “We will make clear in the self-certification that certification of eligibility for (pandemic benefits) does not affect determinations of employee status under state law for other protections and benefits.”
During a Facebook Live conference, Su said the state will pay workers eligible for pandemic benefits the minimum amount initially, and if they are entitled to more based on their actual earnings, pay the difference later. She said she was not sure whether independent contractors who already applied for benefits will have to reapply when the application for pandemic benefits come out.