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Gig Workers’ New Unemployment Benefits Won’t Come Quickly

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Yash Bazian estimates it took him three or four hours to apply for unemployment insurance—far longer than if he had pay stubs from an employer. But Bazian drives full-time for Uber and Lyft in California—when the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t scaring away riders and making him nervous about his own safety behind the wheel. Those companies consider their drivers self-employed freelancers, who generally are not eligible for unemployment insurance, even though Bazian says his work has dwindled to nothing.

The form that California uses to evaluate unemployment claims clearly wasn’t made for Bazian, the driver noticed. He had to comb through receipts and calculate his quarterly income since 2018. The form asked for his supervisor’s name, and for permission to contact her. Who’s your boss when an algorithm calls the shots?

Now, more than two weeks later, Bazian has heard nothing from the state about his application. “I feel like the system is broken,” he says. “This is not the way to treat people who have stress and the loss of income.”

In an unusual move, Congress included ride-hail drivers like Bazian in the $2 trillion pandemic relief bill approved last month. So-called gig workers whose work has been affected by the virus are eligible for up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits. But the money won’t arrive quickly.

Officials in state unemployment offices are scrambling to determine who’s eligible for what benefits, and how to get money to them. Those offices, wading through an unprecedented 10 million claims filed in the past two weeks, only received instructions from the US Labor Department on Sunday on handling gig worker applications. A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Labor says the guidance requires workers who are not usually eligible for unemployment benefits to apply to state programs, get rejected, and then apply again for the federally funded pandemic assistance. (The US Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment.)

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Some state unemployment websites have crashed. In New York, drivers say they’ve called thousands of times over the past few weeks, or waited on hold for hours. “There needs to be a faster way,” says Moira Muntz, spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents some 80,000 New York City drivers.

“Everyone is just so, so confused,” says Kersha Cartwright, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Labor. Last week, as news of the federal relief act spread across the gig work community, the department published an alert on its website: “Self-employed workers, gig workers, 1099 independent contractors – DO NOT APPLY AT THIS TIME.” Cartwright says the department’s IT team is rushing to develop a website to accommodate those applying for state unemployment insurance and pandemic assistance. Building the site could take two days, or four days, or two weeks, she says—no one’s sure yet.

Self-employed people have received federal unemployment assistance before, as part of disaster relief packages. “But it’s never been used at this scale,” says Rebecca Smith, the head of the Work Structures program at the National Employment Law Project.

Muhammad Chowdhury, an Uber and Lyft driver in Atlanta, has applied for and been denied unemployment benefits in Georgia. He says he stopped driving in mid-March, after customers stopped requesting rides. “Fortunately, I’ve got a little more ammo left from the savings I worked so hard for,” he says. But if he doesn’t get help in the next few weeks, “I’m doomed,” he says.

Many gig companies—including Uber, Lyft, and Postmates—have established relief funds for drivers who have contracted Covid-19, or have been ordered by medical officials to quarantine. Uber and Postmates declined last month to say how many workers had received funds under the program. But in a court filing Monday, Lyft lawyers said the company had given lump sums to nearly 1,500 workers, fewer than 1 percent of the company’s roughly 1 million US drivers. The money ranged from $250 to $1,000, depending on how many hours a driver works per month. Lyft says it will reevaluate the relief program on April 10.

In California and New York, officials had been moving under state laws toward including gig workers in the unemployment system before the pandemic. In those states, ride-hail drivers may get benefits more quickly and easily. But the process is fraught there, too, because it’s unclear whether the states see ride-hail drivers as employees or independent contractors. And even those states don’t have information about drivers’ wages to streamline the application process.

New York’s labor review board ruled in 2018 that Uber drivers should be considered employees for the purposes of unemployment insurance. A state court ruled in late March that the state’s Postmates couriers are employees, and entitled to unemployment benefits. But until recently, officials did not have records of gig workers’ wages, forcing drivers to wait months for benefits that traditional employees receive in weeks. On Monday, Uber spokesperson Harry Hartfield said Uber had begun submitting driver wage information, which should accelerate the process. Lyft declined to comment on the issue but a spokesperson said that the majority of the company’s drivers also work for other companies, and may receive unemployment benefits through those employers.

In California, fights over a new law that classifies gig workers as employees have spilled over into pandemic relief. Under the law, known as Assembly Bill 5, an Uber driver and a Lyft driver have filed emergency requests for benefits like sick leave in California courts; both cases are pending. Uber and Lyft say AB5 does not apply to their drivers, and that both companies are simply tech platforms that connect independent businesspeople to riders. Uber and Lyft lawyers argue in legal filings that reclassifying California drivers would force the companies to upend their business models in the middle of a pandemic. Uber has also made changes to its driver app in the state in an attempt to show that its workers have more control over their business.

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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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