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‘You feel trapped’: Montreal gig workers have to hustle, despite lack of labour protections

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A few years ago, Shanti Gonzales started waking up in the morning with no voice.

At the time, she was working a gig where she would sing to rooms of rambunctious children at libraries and schools, and it took a toll.

No amount of honey and tea and lozenges helped. She often would wind up hoarse by the end of her shift, meaning she had to stop working — at that job, and at her other gigs.

“I didn’t have anything to lean back on. I didn’t have paid time off. I didn’t have health insurance, I didn’t have any benefits. I didn’t even have someone to cover for me,” she said.

“Without these protections, you feel trapped.”

Like many her age, Gonzales, 24, is working in what’s called the gig economy. Though the term may bring to mind jobs that involve some kind of online platform (such as Fiverr or Foodora), it also includes those who work independent contracts for short, fixed periods of time.

The rise of the gig economy has led to a problem: workers who are juggling several different contracts don’t always have the protections, such as a human resources department, or a union, that salaried workers do.

Gonzales graduated from McGill with a BA in English three years ago, and since then, she’s never had a full-time job. She has worked as a musician, nanny, arts educator, administrator, copywriter and playwright.

In some of those jobs, she has faced discrimination based on her gender, her race, and her age, she said. But she never had many avenues of recourse.

One of Gonzales’ gigs includes working as a playwright. Right now, she’s working on a play about two magical siblings.(Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

A ‘rolling back’ of labour protections?

According to John Paul Ferguson, a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, the gig economy has less to do with the type of work people are doing and more to do with the relationship between the employer and the employee.

Along with his colleague Matthew Corritore, Ferguson is surveying gig economy workers in Montreal to better understand their realities.

Ferguson says while there are some good things about the gig economy — like how online platforms can make it easier for people to contract for work — he has concerns about the effect of the gig economy on workers’ rights.

In the past, policies were put in place restricting casual labour because of concerns about exploitation, underpayment and unfairness, he said.

“The worry that those of us who have studied employment for many years have is: how much of this is just a rolling back of some of these protections that we put on our employees in the past?”

As one of her gigs, Gonzales goes to schools to teach theatre to youth. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

The province’s major labour laws do not apply to people who are self-employed. However, Catherine Poulin, a spokesperson for Quebec’s Ministry of Labour, said some self-employed workers in the gig economy may actually have an employer-employee relationship with their employer, and therefore are protected.

Gonzales, for example, is considered an employee at some jobs, but considered self-employed at others.

Those who face discrimination are also entitled to the protections under the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and can file a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights commission, Poulin said in a statement.

Relying on a community

Gonzales says one of the most important aspects of the gig economy is knowing which gigs are good and which are not.

She relies on a community of people who meet up in person or chat over the phone to give each other advice about jobs and employers to avoid.

This tight-knit web of people also share opportunities with each other and recommend each other for jobs that may come up.

Gonzales said being a part of the gig economy can be isolating and leave people vulnerable because they don’t have co-workers.

“I think that’s why these little micro communities form. It’s the people: we’re ‘in it’ for each other. We’re in it to make sure that we can achieve each others’ goals, together. The community aspect is the thing I am fiercely protective of and fiercely invested in.”

What’s it like to work in the gig economy? Daybreak’s Jennifer Yoon will take us into Shanti Gonzales’ schedule and will walk us through the highs and lows of the gig economy. 11:53

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What Gig Workers Need To Know About Collecting Unemployment – WAMU 88.5

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When Will Illinois Gig Workers Get Unemployment Checks

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Gig workers and other self-employed, independent contractors in Illinois cannot look forward to getting unemployment checks anytime soon — despite a new federal law intended to help them out financially.

The $2 trillion federal stimulus bill that was approved on March 27 cleared the way to expand jobless benefits to many workers who had not previously been eligible, including the vast ranks of drivers for Uber, Lyft and other rideshare apps.

But nearly two weeks later, the officials who run the unemployment system for Illinois have not come up with a process to accept applications from such workers, much less get the promised money into their pockets.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security says it’s still too busy dealing with the record number of unemployment claims from other workers who are eligible for benefits under existing programs.

In a statement posted Tuesday on the department’s website, officials told gig workers not to bother applying at this point — and to refrain from calling to ask about the matter.

The new Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act sets aside federal funding for benefits to “independent contractors and self-proprietors” who once could not get benefits “but have become unemployed as a direct result of COVID-19,” officials said.

It’s not clear, though, when the state unemployment agency will be ready to start turning the funding from Congress into reality in Illinois. The U.S. Labor Department issued instructions to states on Sunday.

“Please do not call to inquire about these new federal programs,” according to the statement on the IDES website. “Our employees are processing applications for current benefits. Further details about the new federal programs and how to apply will be made available once they have been finalized.”

In a statement to WBEZ on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for IDES did not say how long the delay will last.

“The stimulus package will take time to implement,” said spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco.

She said state employees are fully occupied trying to field the “large increase in claims for regular unemployment benefits” since a stay-at-home order went into effect on March 20. Last week, for the second straight week, Illinois officials reported fielding a record number of new jobless claims.

It’s yet another blow to many working people who were having trouble making ends meet even before the pandemic, said Lenny Sanchez, a long-time Uber and Lyft driver who lives in Des Plaines.

“It’s a punch in the gut when you hear information like that or a response like that,” said Sanchez, 40, of the statement from IDES officials. “It’s like, ‘Hang on tight. We’ll give it to you whenever it’s ready.’ ”

Sanchez — who’s also an organizer and co-founder with an activist group called Gig Workers Matter — said many rideshare drivers were euphoric when the federal law was approved.

“Some drivers went ahead and started applying as soon as the news came out,” he said. “I’m definitely happy that gig workers were included.”

But he and other advocates for rideshare drivers said tens of thousands of families are suffering deeply because the new system has not been implemented yet in Illinois.

“Rideshare drivers are desperate right now, and they are scrambling to pay bills, pay mortgages,” said Bryant Greening, a lawyer with the LegalRideshare LLC. “It’s really a devastating and trying time for them.”

And it’s not just rideshare drivers who are eager to see the state get their unemployment checks in the mail.

Morgan Ione Yeager, a freelance photographer in Highland Park, said she was “appalled and disgusted” by the delays in implementing the aspects of the CARES Act designed expressly for workers like her.

“They’re really handling it poorly,” she said of the state’s response. “There’s no reason why it needs to be this difficult.”

Yeager said she has lost a lot of jobs with clients in the food, beverage, travel and hospitality industries after the pandemic prompted Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and the governors of most other states to issue stay-at-home orders.

“All of my shoots have been cancelled for March and April at least,” she said. “I don’t really know when I’ll be able to start making money again.”

She said Illinois officials here should at least be able to provide some idea of when everybody covered by the federal stimulus bill will get what they were promised.

“There’s no timeline,” Yeager said. “There’s just no answers and no communication. It doesn’t seem like anybody in my situation is being taken care of at all.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.

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Gig and contract workers can apply for Georgia benefits Monday

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Georgia state officials said Wednesday that their systems will be ready next week: gig and contract workers as well as the self-employed can start applying for jobless benefits starting Monday.

Those workers – tens of thousands of them without paychecks since the virus-linked shutdowns began several weeks ago – have been told not to apply yet, even though they are now entitled to jobless benefits.

Gig, contractor and self-employed workers were not covered by unemployment insurance in virtually any state before passage of the huge federal spending bill March 27.

Many rushed to apply for benefit. 

But state systems were not prepared. Many of those newly-eligible workers were unable to apply at all or if they were, they were frustrated to find their applications rejected.

Meanwhile, the extension of benefits to those new classes of workers sent state officials across the country scrambling to reconfigure software and other processes.

At least in Georgia, the system will be ready to handle applications – starting Monday, said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor

Workers who had already applied do not have to apply again, she said. 

Once an application is processed, it could still be several weeks before the worker receives his or her money. When the payments begin, workers will receive $600 extra as part of the new law.

Also urged to file applications next week are workers who had previously been told their work history or limited wages made them ineligible. They should also apply starting Monday, Cartwright said. “If you have been told you had a limited work history or you don’t have enough wages, you may qualify for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.”

Even without the contractors and gig workers, the Labor Department has been inundated with claims for jobless benefits. Last week, the department reported it had processed 133,820 applications for unemployment insurance – three times more than the worst week of the Great Recession. This week’s report, due Thursday, is expected to be worse.