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Coronavirus Lockdown Puts the Squeeze on San Antonio Gig Economy Workers

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DLLU / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Seen any Uber drivers around lately?

Chances are you haven’t. In this climate of social distancing, not many folks want to pile into a car and sit a couple feet away from a stranger.


That has spelled problems for San Antonio’s gig economy. One ride-share driver who declined to give his name said he’s witnessed a 75% decrease in rides during off-peak hours. Work during peak hours has dropped in half.


A recent Business Insider survey of more than 1,000 ride-share workers corroborated the downturn. Its numbers were even more bleak, however, putting the decrease at as much as 80% nationally.




It’s unclear exactly how many San Antonio workers rely on ride-share driving and other app-based employment. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2017 that a third of all U.S. workers drew paychecks from the gig economy. BLS predicted that number would rise to 43% in 2020.


The decline in ridership has created a market correction that’s pulled local drivers off the road and forced them to seek other income.


“There’s no money out there for ride-sharing,” said another driver who requested anonymity. “People sit and wait at the Uber pool at the airport and need to drive so far away to grab people. It’s not even worth it.”


While it seems like delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash could offer a quick pivot, local drivers say those aren’t accepting new drivers. One shared a screen capture of a message from DoorDash saying it’s not looking for new delivery drivers but promised to email once that changed.


According to the Texas Workforce Commission, self-employed residents affected by the outbreak may qualify for benefits under the Federal Stimulus Bill. It urged affected workers to call it at 800-939-6631 or visit its website to apply for benefits.


However, with more than half a million Texans filing unemployment claims in the last 18 days, TWC’s phone and computer systems have been overwhelmed, leading to busy signals and website crashes.


But there’s been a bit of good news for local gig workers.


Some say they successfully switched to food delivery and are offsetting their losses. A handful reported that by driving for Uber Eats, they’ve even seen an upswing in traffic.


One driver who declined to be named said he’s between jobs and is pulling in decent income driving for Favor. Among Favor’s perks are guaranteed pay if he has works a specific number of hours and an incentive program increases his pay for the weekend.


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Nevada launches system to accept gig workers’ weekly claims – KRNV My News 4

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Point of View: Florida unemployment system still a mess amid COVID-19 crisis, especially for gig workers – Opinion – The Palm Beach Post

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Gig workers, independent contractors (also called “1099 workers”) and the self-employed don’t qualify for state unemployment. But they qualify for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance included in the CARES Act passed by Congress. They must still apply through the rickety Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s system.

Ena Beatty and her 23-year-old son applied for unemployment benefits together in mid-March.

Her son, Nick, has already received his first state unemployment check and another one is on the way. He’s also received three $600 checks from the federal government.

Ena, meanwhile, still is waiting to see when and if she will get help. It’s been almost two months since she applied.

>>>Related content: Editorial: Probe of jobless benefits system worthless without fixes

>>>Related content: Coronavirus Florida: Editorial: Do more to fix state’s broken jobless benefits system, policy

Why Ena of Indialantic and her son have had difference experiences might rest in the fact that she’s a gig worker during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ena, 55, used to take tourists from Port Canaveral on tours and hand out food and alcohol samples at grocery stores. Her son had a regular job at the now-shuttered Lucky’s Market in West Melbourne.

“Everyday is another worry and wondering how we’re going to get by,” said the single mother who lives with son Nick, who’s stepped up to pay the bills, and her 16-year-old daughter.

Gig workers, independent contractors (also called “1099 workers”) and the self-employed don’t qualify for state unemployment. But they qualify for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance included in the CARES Act passed by Congress. They must still apply through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s system.

Yes, they qualify for these benefits but getting their hands on them is a different story.

Florida’s handling of unemployment claims has been, for the lack of a better word, a mess. For weeks, we’ve been documenting glitches and errors with the online system, people whose applications have been pending for too long and people who have been rejected despite apparently qualifying for help.

While some regular and full-time workers like Nick are starting to receive their benefits — though thousands are still are waiting — people like Ena appear to be facing the longest waits, Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, told me.

I emailed the DEO asking if that’s truly the case and why but didn’t get any answers. Sirois believes that might be explained by the fact applicants had to apply for state benefits, be deemed ineligible and then, in some cases, reapply for federal assistance, which Ena did on April 26. Also, it wasn’t until April 28 that Florida rolled out its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Sirois said.

That leaves these already-vulnerable independent workers, who don’t receive employer-provided health insurance and benefits, in an even more vulnerable situation.

And it’s not just independent workers who are experiencing delays. Lawmakers across Florida are being flooded with messages from all kinds of people who struggled to get benefits.

Emails sent to Brevard state Rep. Randy Fine’s office paint a picture of what’s happening. Fine has said his office spends much of each day helping Brevard residents trying to navigate the unemployment process.

“I cant believe! I cant log in! The site doesn’t let me! I have no income. Why is this this hard?” an applicant wrote on April 20.

“I am a teacher who was furloughed in March… I filed (for) unemployment right away and to this day I am still in pending status,” a woman wrote on April 24.

“I logged into the system this morning after it has been down since last week and now I show up as ineligible with no explanation. No ONE from the DEO has ever contacted me. I have tried all day to reapply for benefits and the system is broken,” a man wrote on April 27.

Only 48% of more than 1.3 million unique jobless claims have been paid out as of May 11, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The situation for those requesting federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (independent workers and others who don’t qualify for state benefits) is slightly worse: 43% of 52,549 claims processed in Florida were paid out as of May 11.

No state was prepared for the flood of jobless claims the coronavirus has caused. But Florida has been notoriously slow in processing claims — it was among the slowest in the nation as of early April, according to an Associated Press analysis. It’s unclear where it stands today.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered an investigation of the $77.9 million system and the state’s contract with Deloitte, the company that built it.

As government bureaucrats try to figure who dropped the ball, people like Ena, who hasn’t worked since late February, are paying the price despite having lost their livelihood through no fault of their own.

Making the problem worse is the lack of information coming from the DEO on when these people can expect to see a check. Even lawmakers like Sirois are having a hard time getting through to ask questions on behalf of their constituents.

“You will receive info mid-week next week,” said an April 25 email from Jonathan Satter, secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services.

The recipient was Melbourne resident Blake Moia, a contractor for an event production company, who had emailed asking for help after his March 15 application was rejected. He reapplied on April 25.

“Mid-week next week” should’ve happened two weeks ago. Checking his still-pending application feels now like an exercise in futility — that’s if he’s able to log into the state website without getting booted off.

“I stopped checking for the most part because I kind of gave up, Moia said.

The problem is giving up, while perhaps the only way to deal with a tortured wait, isn’t an option people like Moia can afford right now.

UPDATE: Blake Moia finally got his application approved, and this week received $226.

ISADORA RANGEL, VIERA

Editor’s note: Rangel is FLORIDA TODAY’s public affairs and engagement editor and a member of the Editorial Board.

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Las Vegas gig vet says system ‘doesn’t fit what we do’

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