Self-employed amid COVID-19? Gig workers await arrival of approved federal aid

Local News

BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — While Louisiana’s unemployment offices work extra to tackle piling demand, many of the state’s self-employed workers are not working at all.

The coronavirus pandemic has left Baton Rouge-based media consultant Sonny Marchbanks without clients since mid-March. Because most independent contractors cannot collect from the state’s unemployment trust fund, he must wait for federal aid that — while approved in March — still could take weeks.

“The self-employed tend to be folks that hustle,” Marchbanks said. “They have to. They can’t call in, and there’s no paid time off.”

Self-employed and gig-based workers seldom qualify for state unemployment insurance because most don’t report to a particular employer — and don’t have anyone who can contribute to the unemployment trust fund on their behalf. That’s not only the case in Louisiana, but in most states nationwide.

“The unemployment system treats the self-employed like they’re less than,” Marchbanks said.

As part of some temporary help, many contractors will qualify for $600 a week under a federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The Louisiana Workforce Commission, which oversees the state’s jobless aid, urges self-employed workers to file a claim and weekly certifications with the department.

“Think of your weekly certification as your timesheet,” Louisiana Workforce Commission secretary Ava DeJoie said. “We desperately want to assist every citizen we possibly can.”

The filings will serve as trails of sorts. When the retroactive federal aid arrives, the state can use these claims and certifications to determine how many of a contractor’s unemployed — or underemployed — weeks to cover, dating back to the week starting March 29.

A person will not get benefits without filing a weekly certification. The weekly filing window starts each Sunday and ends each Saturday at 11:59 p.m. (Certifications can be filed at LouisianaWorks.net or by calling 1-866-783-5567.)

It’s unclear what longterm aid, if any, the unemployment system will offer contracted workers once the pandemic subsides. While DeJoie did not make any policy proposals of her own, she hinted the ongoing struggles may give self-employment and the gig-based economy new light.

“After turbulent times, people have a new and refreshed energy, vigor and outlook,” she said.

Marchbanks, who has filed his unemployment claim, will spend his downtime doing yardwork and reading until business revives.

“When I first got all these books, I would say, ‘When I get the time, I’m going to read that,’ he said. “Now, I’ve got all this time.”

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, which averaged 257 customer service calls a day before the COVID-19 outbreak, has averaged 7,750 calls a day since the first Louisianian tested positive for the virus in March.

The agency has expanded its hours, on-duty staff and online server capacity amid the pandemic. More than 300 employees are taking applications, and the department’s call center hours have expanded.

The Louisiana Workforce Commissioner’s Claim Center hotline — 1-866-783-5567 — has stretched its hours to 8 a.m. through 7 p.m. Applicants can also file claims online here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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