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Unemployment benefits for Minnesota freelancers have started, but not everyone has been paid yet

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said it’s been a struggle to get the new self-employed unemployment program up and running quickly.
If you are a freelancer in Minnesota still waiting on an unemployment check, you are not alone.

Pat Bourgeois still is. A writer and marketer, Bourgeois runs his own firm: Cannon Bomb Communications. But in the last few months, as coronavirus in Minnesota spread and offices closed, business dried up. The Elk River resident is entering his lost income each week online, hoping to claim unemployment, but he has yet to hear back from the state.

“My longtime existing clients have put everything on lockdown and have furloughed several employees,” said Bourgeois. “Obviously, with employees furloughed, a freelancer like myself will be on the bottom of the list if and when work returns.”

Bourgeois added: “My account is still allowing me to report each week, everything is still all zeroes.”

Unemployment benefits for freelance workers, contract workers and gig workers in Minnesota are new. Jacob Loesch, a spokesperson at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which administers the program, said that Bourgeois’ situation is not unusual. While the agency has already processed 10,000 applications since implementing the program on April 24, it still has a ways to go.

Pat Bourgeois
Cannon Bomb Communications
Pat Bourgeois
The program is technically called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and was established by the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion COVID-19 response legislation passed in late March. The bill also established Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, an additional $600 a week for those on unemployment available until July 31, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits on top of regular unemployment, available until December 31, 2020.

While Minnesota was one of the first three states in the nation to implement all three of these benefit programs, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said it’s been a struggle to get the new self-employed unemployment program up and running quickly.

“This wasn’t just a switch that we flicked,” Grove said at a telephone town hall with Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Angie Craig on Tuesday night. The mechanism the federal government used to implement Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is through an existing framework, Disaster Unemployment Insurance, which usually goes into effect for a specific area during a flood or tornado.

The original system wasn’t built for self-employed people to apply. Because of this, many have seen a denial message from DEED and assume they will not receive benefits. But according to Grove, that denial message is actually part of the process.

“If you’ve applied and been denied, we realize that’s a confusing message for some,” but Grove clarified: It’s how the process works. If you’ve applied as a contract worker and the system has told you that you’ve been denied, according to him, that’s normal.

“As long as you have applied, we will get back to you,” he said. “You don’t have to reapply or apply again or update your application.”

Once someone is not deemed eligible for regular unemployment, DEED checks their eligibility by verifying their self-employment using records like state taxes. If you do qualify for the contract-worker unemployment program, the formula is the same as if you had regular unemployment: 50 percent of your weekly wage, with the caveat of a maximum weekly amount of $740. If your net income was less than $24,340, you will receive the minimum benefit amount: $234 a week.

“Once determined eligible for PUA, a person will receive benefits backdated to whenever they first became eligible due to COVID-19,” Loesch said. “I know that for a lot of folks the waiting is extremely challenging, but hope this adds some level of comfort.” That includes Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, the additional $600 per week on top of whatever you would already receive for self-employed unemployment.

Loesch said DEED does not have an estimate on how many people will ultimately be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, because they’re essentially building the system from scratch. On top of that, DEED has just 300 employees managing all of the state’s unemployment claims: more than 530,000 since March 16.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is also available to more than just self-employed people or contractors. The CARES Act specifies that it’s also accessible to people without a long enough work history to get unemployment (regular unemployment typically requires at least 12 months of employment) and people living in a household where the head of household has died as a direct result of COVID-19.

“We are proactively reaching out to thousands of people at a time now that we’re up and running, with benefits, with information on how to collect that money,” Grove said.

“It is taking us some time given the complexity of it. But no matter what, you will get every penny you deserve backdated to the day you are separated from work.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jeffrey Swainhart on 05/01/2020 - 06:16 am.

    DEED came through for me. As an independent contractor (carpenter) I had to give back a deposit when a cabinet project canceled and the stay at home order came out. I started burning through my small savings fast. I filed for unemployment and saw the same “zeros” for 4 weeks. It was disheartening. It hit my bank yesterday and I am grateful.

    • Submitted by Susan Maricle on 05/01/2020 - 01:35 pm.

      I’m glad it worked out for you. Independent contract work can be frustrating. My husband works in lawn service. He was denied a claim for missing five weeks of work, and had until yesterday to appeal. Yesterday our internet service was down, due to a fiber cut.

      • Submitted by Joy Nazario on 05/03/2020 - 05:36 pm.

        I applied for the regular unemployment benefits in mid March, I was denied the regular benefit due to being self-employed or no employment history for the past 18 months, now week’s had gone by and no contact had been made could have been to the new system being built. I called the unemployment office, waited on hold for an hour on Monday April 27th I spoke to someone, she took me through a series of questions for the PUA benefits then told me to wait 2 or 3 more weeks more for a determination. I checked my online unemployment account after hanging up that call and shaw a new claim had been added under Determination of benefits along with a claim number.

        Fast forward to Wednesday April 29th I checked my account again and the PAU claim, it’s claim number and the pending status were gone/missing. I’m not sure whats happened because the status was supposed to change to approved or deined not disappear per their FAQ.

        I tried calling all day Friday May 1st but couldn’t get through to a CS agent, I could however get through the phone prompts, only to be told by an automatic message, due to high call volume phone calls are taken from 8am to 2 pm m-f and if I were receiving the message between normal hours they where two busy to answer and to try again later the call was then disconnected. I started calls started at 8 am and called back every 15 mins until 1:30pm before giving up.

        This whole process is very frustrating!!! They never asked for supporting documents like bank statements, taxes etc

  2. Submitted by Chasity Hunt on 05/05/2020 - 09:23 am.

    It’s also really fun being someone that has to work two jobs to support themselves. Currently one job needs to be open because it’s a medical clinic, and the other was a business that had to close due to the shelter in place order. I can’t collect unemployment for the job I’m not allowed to work because I still have my day job. They tell me I make too much money for benefits, even though I lost almost 50% of my income that I need in order to pay my bills. Called them, sat on hold for hours multiple times, and they say people like me don’t qualify for any benefits.

    • Submitted by Jessica Rose on 05/13/2020 - 01:48 pm.

      I am in a similar boat.
      I work two part time jobs instead of one full time job, and my self employment gig is half my income. I still have my 22hr a week job at the library and am on “closure” pay for the time being. My self employment hours have dropped to just 6 or 6 hours a week from the 15 to 20+ I was working before the pandemic.
      DEED still has me listed as UI. I was told I made enough from my library job to qualify for UI, but I get denied every week because I have not lost that job. I listed my self employment when I applied and followed the PUA directions provided on the unemployment site.
      The library is going to appeal and hopefully get to talk to a person to explain my situation. But that wouldn’t be until July. So I wrote a letter explaining that I did not want UI and was applying for PUA due to lost wages for three covid related reasons (stay at home order, children at home due to school and daycare closure, and that my self employment was assisting a woman with health complications that is highrisk so I do not go to her home to work anymore, but only do a few things here and there for her at home on the computer). I also included a copy of my 2019 taxes as proof of wages.
      I was below the poverty line before the pandemic. I cannot afford to lose almost half my wages.
      I check everyday and nothing looks different on my account.
      I called and finally got the automated system to review the recent decisions. They all said that my UI payments were reduced or denied every week because of my part time wages. Nothing about self employment mentioned, only my library job. Very frustrating.

  3. Submitted by Robyn Polsfuss on 05/16/2020 - 12:40 am.

    I applied for unemployment knowing I needed to for the Pua part and I clicked that i was self employed but I realize now I may have misunderstood when I was filling out my form because under employer I didn’t add self employed to that part. I sell clothing online and right now sales have been very low. Status was pending since 4/19 but lately when I check it says zero across the board and when I try to request benefits there is no questions to fill out I get something to do with 2021. I do have where I can appeal but would I lose my back pay if I appeal? Or by appealing I can add the info I missed when I applied?

  4. Submitted by Tarrah Hall on 06/01/2020 - 09:28 am.

    I finally received my PUA payment after waiting 10 weeks. I DID have to update my application and you CANNOT do it online. You have to call. Also it says the minimum amount is $234 per week, but I only received $120. Lots of misinformation being put out there in general.

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