Surviving the Pandemic, With a Little Help from the Feds

A career as a freelance writer and the benefits usually associated with traditional employment seldom go hand in hand. They never have. For many people, this benefit gap is a fundamental flaw in the system that puts freelancers at a distinct disadvantage when compared with their regular employee peers. Legislative attempts to “fix” the perceived problem, which are on the rise these days, tend to dismiss the possibility freelancing might be a desirable—and for many of us, a successful—career choice.

Instead, legislation like Assembly Bill 5 in California and proposed legislation elsewhere tries to associate worker benefits with only traditional employment, and not with freelancing. A mandated link tying benefits to regular employee status doesn’t work, as we already see in California, and it isn’t necessary. Freelancing and benefits are not always mutually exclusive.

            Consider unemployment insurance: traditional employees usually are eligible while independent contractors generally are not. With millions of workers losing their jobs as the Coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the country, however, the timeworn distinction between regular employees and independent contractors is beginning to fall apart. In my home state, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has championed unemployment insurance coverage for everyone adversely affected by the pandemic.

At the national level, Congress in late March passed, and the President signed, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act), a wide-ranging stimulus package of government programs and initiatives. Almost as shocking as the cost of CARES—more than $2 trillion in direct payments to individuals, bailout money for industries, tax breaks, and support for health care—were provisions providing across-the-board unemployment assistance.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program covers workers who are already eligible for state unemployment compensation (regular employees) and workers currently not eligible for state or federal unemployment insurance. The latter group explicitly includes workers who are “self-employed” and who “would not qualify for regular unemployment or extended benefits under State or Federal law.” These workers, ASJA’s members among them, make up the freelance community.

Although both employees and independent contractors are covered, the assistance is only related to the Coronavirus pandemic, with conditions for eligibility. Applicants must certify that they are “able to work and available for work” based on criteria in their state, and that they are either “unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work” due to one of the following conditions:          

  • the individual has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • a member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
  • the individual is providing care for a family member or a member of the individual’s household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
  • a child or other person in the household for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency, and such school or facility care is required for the individual to work;
  • the individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency;
  • the individual is unable to reach the place of employment because the individual has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
  • the individual was scheduled to commence employment and does not have a job or is unable to reach the job as a direct result of COVID-19 public health emergency;
  • the individual has become the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of household has died as a direct result of COVID-19;
  • the individual has been forced to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19;
  • the individual’s place of employment is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency; or
  • the individual meets any additional criteria established by the Secretary for unemployment assistance under this section.

This federally funded unemployment assistance program has a limited term, starting retroactively on January 27, 2020 (the date that the federal Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency because of Coronavirus) and running through the end of the year. Eligible applicants can receive benefits for a total of 39 weeks.

Independent contractors typically will not have a record of freelance employment and earnings on file with their states’ labor departments—they’ve been excluded from unemployment insurance programs in the past and never needed one before. As a result, applicants must provide documentation of work history and income. Determining what constitutes satisfactory self-certification that one of the pandemic-related conditions exists, and what an adequate work history for freelancers includes, are among the many details yet to be worked out.

With updates and clarifications coming almost every day and interpretations of new programs subject to idiosyncratic state labor rules, it difficult to know how to proceed. It’s clear, though, that state unemployment offices are dealing with record numbers of applications. Commentators generally suggest that individuals apply for assistance now rather than waiting for the wrinkles in the pandemic assistance program to be worked out.

            But first, gather your employment and income records. These might include tax returns, 1099s, a list of publications that hired you before but not now, and anything else that shows the negative impact Coronavirus has made on your freelance career. And good luck!

ASJA will help you stay informed of new developments related to freelancers and COVID-19. Check the website for the latest updates.