Millions of unemployed Americans are still waiting on the beefed-up unemployment benefits Congress promised as part of the $2.1 trillion stimulus package ― and it’s still unclear who will qualify.
The new provisions are supposed to give jobless workers an extra $600 per week on top of what they would normally receive, but not before state workforce agencies can work through a cumbersome implementation process.
The bill also expanded coverage to include categories of workers who aren’t traditionally eligible for unemployment, such as “gig” workers who drive for Uber.
Members of Congress specifically said such workers should benefit, but the new guidance issued by the U.S. Labor Department over the weekend could exclude some ride-hailing app drivers, said Andrew Stettner, an unemployment policy expert and senior fellow at The Century Foundation.
Stettner said “the rules released Sunday night are criminally narrow and will greatly undermine the effectiveness of the system.”
Other policy experts said the guidance was simply confusing, and it’s just not clear if gig workers would be disqualified. Michele Evermore, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, said “it’s probably overall a good thing they got this out the door so states can start ramping up, but a little bit more clarity would be good.”
The Labor Department’s guidance specifically says a ride-hailing app driver is eligible “if he or she has been forced to suspend operations as a direct result of the COVID19 public health emergency, such as if an emergency state or municipal order restricting movement makes continued operations unsustainable.”
But what exactly does that mean? An overstrict interpretation would effectively leave out many drivers for ride-hailing apps. Among those is Sabrina Hogan, an Uber driver in Austell, Georgia, who stopped driving in February because she didn’t want to expose herself and her husband to the virus. She didn’t stop because of a municipal order.
Hogan, 52, filed an unemployment claim last week after Congress changed the law ― even though she’s not sure if she’ll qualify. She spent part of the weekend tweeting at the state labor commissioner about how his agency’s website won’t say whether she’ll get benefits.
“Just keep checking on our website, we are going to have information when the program rules and monies are released by US Department of Labor,” agency commissioner Mark Butler said in a response.
As of Monday afternoon, the Georgia Department of Labor’s website said that independent contractors and gig workers, who will be newly eligible for benefits, should not apply yet and that the state would provide new instructions before April 10.
“It would shock me if I got an approval or any kind of benefit by May 1,” Hogan said.
A spokesperson for the Georgia DOL declined to say whether someone who stopped driving an Uber of their own volition would qualify but said the department would still encourage the person to apply for benefits.
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The new eligibility provisions represent the most dramatic expansion of unemployment insurance in the program’s history. Congress has given states an extra $1 billion to expand capacity and hire more people to process unemployment claims. But doing so will take some time, adding to the delays.
Each state needs to update its systems to actually handle and distribute the money. That could take weeks, Evermore said.
Washington state, one of the first states in the country to see job losses in the wake of coronavirus, told HuffPost that ideally it will start sending out money on April 18.
Hogan said her husband is still working full-time from home, so they’re getting by without her Uber income, but it’s still a loss of more than $1,200 per month. Topping off the uncertainty over her eligibility, Hogan said she had no idea if she would qualify for the extra $600.
“I can’t see [my benefit] being more than $500 per week,” she said. “Till they spell it out, I’m not making any guesstimations.”
Several other jobless workers told HuffPost that they had no idea about the $600 weekly benefit.
“It’s good news,” said Martha Rodriguez, an unemployed education worker in Washington state, when HuffPost told her about the new benefits. Rodriguez worked part-time, but her husband, who also lost his job, was a full-time restaurant worker. Right now they’re relying on food banks to feed themselves and their kids.
“I hope even if I don’t qualify, if my husband does, it’s good help for our family,” she said.
Another potential issue: While the new benefits are meant to cover anyone forced to quit their job because they became sick with the coronavirus, the way the guidelines are written makes it seem like they might need to have a positive test result to qualify.
That’s a big roadblock in the U.S., where testing has not been widely available.
“I do worry about the language that somehow a test might be required because obviously people didn’t have access to testing,” said Evermore.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees unemployment insurance, said he’s concerned that “the guidance forces workers to wade through significant red tape to prove their eligibility, which will inevitably prevent workers from receiving assistance they desperately need and should qualify for.”
The unemployment benefits are just one part of a mega-stimulus package that Congress passed last month, but it isn’t the only policy having a rocky start.
The law included payments to individuals worth $1,200 per person, plus $500 for children, with checks going out to most households in the coming weeks. Households that haven’t filed tax returns in the past two years, however, and that don’t have direct deposit set up with the IRS, might not see the money for months.
Banks were supposed to start handing out $350 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses last week. Many said they were confused by guidance from the federal government while others were placing all kinds of restrictions on who can get ahold of the money.
On Monday, computers used by the Small Business Administration, the agency in charge of distributing the loans, crashed for as long as four hours.
This story was updated to note that Sabrina Hogan says she stopped driving for Uber in February, not in January as she had originally stated to HuffPost.
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