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 and spoke with a couple of experts to get answers for independent contractors trying to collect benefits. Here is everything we’ve learned so far.
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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 out of work directly because of the pandemic (more on that in the next section). You also have to be able and available to work, even if you’re not actively searching for a new job.
I’m not sure I lost work directly because of the pandemic. How is that defined?
To qualify for PUA, applicants have to prove they’re out of work for at least one of the following reasons:
- You have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and you’re seeking a medical diagnosis;
- A member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- You’re providing care for a member of your family or household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- A child or household member for whom you are a primary caregiver can’t attend school or another facility that is closed because of COVID-19, and the school or facility is required for you to work;
- You can’t reach your place of employment because of a mandatory quarantine or because you’ve been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns about COVID-19;
- You were scheduled to start working but you lost the job or can’t reach the job as a direct result of COVID-19;
- You’ve become the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of household has died of COVID-19;
- You had to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19; or
- Your place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19.
How do I apply for benefits?
The best way is to apply online with the unemployment office in the state 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 12, no jurisdiction had updated their online applications to accommodate self-employed people, and many gig workers report their claims are still being denied.
According to the office of D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman, self-employed people should be able to apply for PUA benefits in the District starting April 28. Applicants can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to be notified when the city’s system is ready to start taking PUA claims.
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, but you can sign up for updates on the state DOL website.
Virginia is also scrambling to update its system, according to a spokesperson contacted April 9. The state’s employment office says 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, and D.C. says it will distribute the first federal payments April 21. But this only applies to people who have approved applications by those dates.
Remember: Once your unemployment benefits are approved, you have to file a new claim every week to keep getting money.
The pandemic has forced me to lose part of my income, but not all of it. Am I eligible for unemployment benefits?
A good rule of thumb is you’re probably eligible if you’ve lost at least three quarters of your income, says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. You may even qualify if you still have a full-time job. The key is whether the public health crisis has directly caused you to lose the vast majority of your income.
“It’s definitely worth trying to get the money,” Stettner says.
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 or Virginia (and we still don’t know when you’ll be able to in the latter two), 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 because your state’s system wasn’t up-to-date, 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.
My employer discouraged me from applying for unemployment or told me to seek a small business grant instead. Should I apply for benefits?
Technically, independent contractors can be considered for disaster loans offered by the Small Business Administration during the pandemic. But as long as you’re a self-employed person who lost work directly because of the pandemic, you are also eligible for PUA benefits.
In other words, yes, you should apply.
Employers who discourage independent contractors from applying for benefits may be up to something fishy, says Stettner. The employer could have illegally misclassified the worker as an independent contractor and they’re trying to avoid scrutiny from D.C. or the state, or they’re worried about getting charged a portion of the benefits (even though many states have waived those charges during the pandemic).
“But that’s not really the worker’s concern,” Stettner says. “Workers’ need for income comes first.”
I have no documented income because I work gigs for cash. Can I qualify for benefits?
It’s going to be difficult, says Andrew Stettner, because you have to provide documentation of your earnings.
“You have to have some evidence,” Stettner says. “Maybe you got pay envelopes, even handwritten ones with the amount that you got paid. Maybe you got paid in checks that people wrote ‘cash’ on, but you took a picture of those checks, or you’ve got the canceled checks.”
Successfully proving that you received income could take months, especially while unemployment offices are so overloaded, he says. But it’s worth trying because the potential benefits are significant.
Are non-citizens (e.g. green card holders) eligible for benefits?
Yes, if you have legal work authorization. The D.C. region’s many thousands of undocumented workers are not eligible for benefits, according to Michele Evermore with the National Employment Law Project.
But undocumented residents may have access to other forms of ad hoc support, such as funds provided by CASA, Northern Virginia Family Services, One Fair Wage, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Sanctuary DMV or the $5 million Events DC has pledged for undocumented hospitality workers.
Legal Aid has a list of relief funds for undocumented workers in California that includes many national resources available to D.C.-area residents.