Testing began Friday for the state’s new unemployment benefit application system for self-employed workers, independent contractors, freelancers and project-based workers who have lost income related to covid-19. The application process will fully open Monday if those tests succeed, according to an email to invitees to the test by the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services.

Workers could sign up for advance email notice of when the system became operational. Workers who had signed up for the notice started receiving invitations to apply in the test phase, some as early as Friday morning, recipients told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The newspaper obtained a copy of the testing email at 11 a.m. Saturday. Those whose signed up for email notice are emailed a link to the application testing site. The website for applications will be announced once testing is successfully completed, according to the division.

Required documents

Self-employed applicants for unemployment insurance need to file their 2019 federal income tax returns with the IRS so the state Division of Workforce Services can verify incomes, according to notices from the division. The federal government extended the tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15, but the division needs a tax return to process an applicant’s claims according to the division. Any income tax payments can still be paid as late as July 15 but the filing is needed.

Other documents the division will require include copies of federal 1099 forms, which reports income other than wages, salaries and tips; a state business license; a city business permit copy; utility bills; recent advertisements; contracts, invoices and building lease agreements.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

“You can click on the link below to apply online during the system test between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. today through Sunday, May 3,” the email notice said. “The online application offers the quickest option. However, you may also call 1-844-908-2178 between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. for assistance in submitting the application. Don’t worry if you don’t apply during this test phase, we anticipate that the system will be open daily beginning Monday, May 4.”

This extension of benefits to gig workers is expected to add about 118,000 more claims for unemployment benefits. The number of unemployment claims set records nationwide, including in Arkansas, as businesses closed or restricted operations and people stayed home in an effort to control the virus’ spread. More than 175,000 Arkansans have already filed for unemployment benefit under the regular program, state figures show.

One purpose of the weekend test is to make sure the system does not crash in the expected rush of applications, a division spokeswoman confirmed in an email Friday.

The benefit for so-called gig workers and others passed Congress on March 18 as a part of emergency response measures to the covid-19 pandemic, which has shut down much of the economy.

The state received federal guidelines on how to implement the law on April 5. Putting the process together after that also took time, state Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston has said during daily briefings by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Hutchinson also mentioned this weekend’s ongoing tests in his daily covid-19 briefing Saturday afternoon.

The four weeks it took from the receipt of the federal guidelines until the testing of a prototype application system is understandable but still difficult for would-be beneficiaries, said Mistie Lain, the self-employed creative director for the MAKE Design company of Fayetteville. Her company helps other businesses set up a strong, easily recognized brand identity in their web pages, company literature and other visual means. As such, she said, she has designed websites and integrated functions into them. Setting up a brand-new site in expectation of a flood of applications to help implement an extension of a government program is no small task, she said in an interview earlier this week.

Lain is also the vice president of the Gig Community, a support group for the self-employed in Northwest Arkansas founded in 2018. Members of that community, herself included, are facing serious uncertainties, she said. When they would be eligible to apply for promised benefits was another one of them.

“At first it was scary. They announced they would offer benefits and then you stopped hearing anything about it,” Lain said. “People worried about spending money on anything.” The pandemic itself created great uncertainty and then the wait for any announcement on the benefits, however necessary, added more uncertainty, she said.

“I don’t think anybody was prepared for this, but the unemployment insurance system definitely wasn’t,” Lain said of the pandemic.

At least the successfully self-employed, as a rule, have to be adaptable, Lain said. They are also usually good record-keepers. Those who signed up for early notice received an email listing the documents they will need to apply. The list is long but most self-employed will have them.

Self-employed applicants need to file their 2019 federal income tax returns with the IRS so the division can verify incomes, according to notices from the division. The federal government extended the tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15, but the division needs a tax return to process an applicant’s claims according to the division. Any income tax payments can still be paid as late as July 15 but the filing is needed.

Other documents the division will require include copies of federal 1099 forms, which reports income other than wages, salaries and tips; a state business license; a city business permit copy; utility bills; recent advertisements; contracts, invoices and building lease agreements.

At least 3,000 people signed up the first day advance notice was offered, which was April 13, a division spokeswoman has said.

The state had received 132,000 regular unemployment claims between the end of March and April 10, state figures show. The division takes in about 1,400 applications in a normal week. Those applications didn’t include the newly eligible, such as the self-employed.

*By Doug Thompson via Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette*