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Gig worker’s tale: Economy craters, but Georgia pet groomer hopes to land on feet | Covid-19

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Monday was JD Harrison’s birthday, but he didn’t have much cause for celebration.

“I’m not getting by, realistically speaking,” he said. “I don’t want to embarrass myself, but I’m not getting by.”

At the start of the year, Harrison was making $8,000 to $12,000 a month between his Smyrna-based mobile dog grooming business, Perfect Paws, and driving for Uber and Lyft on the side.

Now, he said he’s making closer to $4,000, and his payments come from the Georgia Department of Labor.

Harrison is one of nearly 1.8 million Georgians to apply for unemployment since COVID-19 began shutting down businesses in March.

That grim toll increases every Thursday lately, when the U.S. Department of Labor releases Georgia’s weekly jobless reports, documenting the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Harrison said he started to notice business slowing down in late February, but calls came to a complete stop in March, around the same time pink slips began going out en masse across Georgia. During the week ending March 21, the number of Georgians filing new unemployment claims more than doubled.

“Business was so slow in March that eviction was inevitable,” Harrison said. “Between February and March, business was just insanely, ridiculously slow.”

That initial wave of layoffs was felt most intensely by workers in the restaurant, convention and hospitality industries, all of which are major components of Georgia’s economy. Now layoffs are spread much more widely, affecting office workers and manufacturers. On Tuesday, 300 employees of the Czarnowski marketing firm in Austell were added to the state’s Business Layoff/Closure Listing website. Atlanta’s Cox Automotive just announced it plans to furlough 12,500 workers this month.

Harrison applied for unemployment benefits in March, but at that time, the state Department of Labor was not set up to pay benefits to gig workers and independent contractors like him. That only became possible after the president signed the federal CARES Act in late March.

“The state of Georgia unemployment basically said, ‘OK, gig workers, we don’t have the system set up for you, we’re making it from scratch, so just accept holding on until April 22. You’ll be sent an email if you were denied unemployment for pandemic unemployment.’”

That’s what happened for Harrison – he said he got his email around April 22.

“After that, it took maybe two weeks for everything to get started to go through, but just think of having a 70% income drop from mid-February to April,” he said.

With scarcely any money coming in, Harrison lost his Atlanta apartment. He’s temporarily staying at an Airbnb until he can arrange something permanent.

Harrison said he’s not even trying to drive for Uber and Lyft right now because he does not want to risk getting sick. He’s still accepting clients for pet grooming, but finding few takers. Georgia’s close-contact businesses were among the first to reopen as part of Gov. Brian Kemp’s recovery plan, but not many Georgians are making a pets’ hair styling a high priority, Harrison said. 

“Grooming, I can pretty much control. I can control what clients I see, when, what kind of contact I have with them,” he said. “But if they don’t have the money to afford the luxuries us Americans love to say we have, when we can’t afford the luxuries, the people that provide the luxuries go out of business.”

Harrison is one of nearly 886,000 Georgians who filed continuing claims in the most recent reporting period, about 17% of the state’s March civilian labor force.

Continuing claims follow the first week of unemployment coverage, and they are a good measure of the state’s economic recovery, said Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center.

“They tell you the extent of the labor market damage that is going on,” Dhawan said. “People on continuing claims means they’ve been unemployed and they’ve been getting the insurance, they haven’t found a job and they haven’t been recalled if they’ve been furloughed. That tells you the ongoing damage.”

Speaking at a press conference following the release of last week’s numbers, Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler predicted more bad news to come.

“I have a gut feeling when you see the numbers that are coming after this week, it’s going to be startling,” he said. “You’re going to probably see us eclipse the $3 billion mark, for the monies that we’ve sent out to help people here.”

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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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