Gig workers, freelancers and self-employed workers who lost their income due to the coronavirus may now qualify for unemployment insurance, thanks to expanded benefits included in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. But that lifeline, to date, has largely been a tangled mess.
The majority of self-employed workers have been unable to file claims or get answers to their questions, due in large part to the massive effort required to stand up new unemployment programs mandated by the law, signed in March.
There are signs that the roadblocks are starting to lift. A handful of states are currently processing claims from self-employed workers, and several more hope to have the new relief programs online by the end of the month. But many states are still providing no guidance or timeline on when these benefits will be available.
Here’s what you need to know before filing your claim if you are self-employed.
Under the relief law, people who are self-employed (including independent contractors and gig workers) and not eligible for regular unemployment insurance can still receive unemployment benefits if they are unable to work or are working reduced hours due to the coronavirus.
Those benefits include:
**Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: You can receive up to 39 weeks of weekly PUA benefits. The exact amount you receive is decided by your state, which has some discretion in determining eligibility and calculating benefit payouts.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation: An additional $600 per week to supplement state or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, payable until July 31 at the latest. You have to apply for unemployment through your state to get the $600 per week, which you may receive even if you do not qualify for state unemployment benefits or PUA.
**State unemployment agencies have been awaiting federal funding and guidance to pay out both benefits, leading to frustrating delays for those out of work and needing assistance. There appears to be some movement, though.
A handful of states are now processing claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, with more planning to do so by the end of the month. And several states announced they will start distributing the $600 per week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation this week. Both benefits will be paid retroactively.
The coronavirus relief package also includes Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides an additional 13 weeks of benefits for people who have already maxed out their unemployment insurance.
How to file a claim
Unemployment insurance varies by state. Your best resource for specific guidelines is your state unemployment agency’s website.
When you file your claim you will need to provide personal information (name, address, Social Security number) and verify your income via a tax return or 1099 form. Workers who don’t fall into the self-employed bucket will still certify their income via pay stubs and a W-2.
Due to the overwhelming number of people claiming unemployment benefits in recent weeks, many states are asking people to apply only on certain days based on their last name or area code to prevent websites from crashing.
Check your state unemployment agency’s website for updates and instructions. Many agencies are also sharing updates via their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
After you apply
Submitting your application for unemployment is just the first step. After that, you typically need to file a weekly claim certifying that you are still out of work. You will not be paid benefits for the week if you don’t file your claim, so don’t skip this step, even if your claim is still being processed.
Once your claim is approved, it will take roughly three weeks to receive your first payment. Unemployment benefits are retroactive, so your pay will be backdated.
Why the delay
The CARES Act came together quickly, moving from idea to law in less than a week, leaving little time for states to adapt. State officials also needed guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on how to implement various pieces of the emergency legislation.
Every state operates its own unemployment insurance program — rules, processes and even the technology used to process claims varies by state. Opening up benefits to people typically not eligible requires more than a few keystrokes. In some cases, states need to build an entirely new system to accept these claims. That takes time under normal circumstances, and the current situation is anything but normal.
“We are in a time of unprecedented and historic number of unemployment claims that began almost overnight, and we have worked hard as an agency to try and stay ahead of the curve,” Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, said via email. “I think that has contributed to our ability to keep pace currently and hopefully will allow us to begin paying the CARES Act benefits [this] week without difficulty.”