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.
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.”