Tens of thousands of self-employed, contractors and gig workers are now eligible for Georgia unemployment benefits, but getting those checks is impossible so far.
Applying for benefits has failed as increasingly desperate workers slammed into a Labor Department system set up to reject anyone who had not been on a company payroll.
For many, the need for financial backup is urgent.
“I currently have $170 in my account,” said Susan Adili of Fayette, who had been driving for Lyft and Uber until the coronavirus crisis, when the business evaporated. “I can tell you I’m concerned.”
Labor Department officials acknowledge problems, but say the ultimate culprit is in Washington, D.C.: federal officials have not yet provided the guidance and regulations needed to write the checks in Georgia.
The delay comes along with an unprecedented rise in joblessness. Nationally, about 10 million people filed for unemployment benefits in the final two weeks of March, a reflection of the virtual shutdown of many sectors of the economy.
In Georgia, the Labor Department said Thursday that it processed a record 133,820 claims for unemployment benefits from the previous week and that the number could be higher this week.
To meet the crisis, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion relief package. The bill included $1,200 checks to most adults, but also added $600 to state unemployment payments.
The measure also extended eligibility for those unemployment benefits to workers who have historically not received them: the self-employed, as well as gig and independent contractors.
Those changes have not yet flowed through to the states.
Workers applying for unemployment benefits in Georgia must use the state Labor Department website, since the department closed its offices as the virus crisis intensified.
But the website is set up for workers who have been on a payroll and whose income is reported using a W-2 form.
For six years, Victoria Donchess, 41, of Suwanee has been working in the Georgia film industry, where she has jumped from one gig to another. But the business has shut down and her application to the Labor Department for benefits was rejected.
She’s called the department repeatedly and gotten nothing but busy signals.
“Not working since March 11 has put a huge strain on me especially with purchasing my medications,” she said. “I haven’t been able to pick two of them up because I don’t have the money. I’m at a loss what to do.”
The pain of self-employed and contract workers is no small issue for the Georgia economy.
While no precise figure is available, about 470,000 Georgians are self-employed, with more than half of them in metro Atlanta, said economist Michael Wald, former senior economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.
That includes those doing gig work, but also those who have their own businesses, like Bethany Bearden of Gainesville, who is an occupational therapist.
“Since the virus, my caseload has gone down about two-thirds,” she said. “And before the virus, I was living paycheck to paycheck with no savings. There are no jobs in my field nationwide. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have a feeling my bank account will be overdrawn by next week.”
Labor Department officials acknowledge the problem and the frustration of jobless Georgians. They say they have tweaked the website to provide more help.
But they can’t yet do much for gig and contract workers and the self-employed, said Mark Butler, Georgia’s labor commissioner.
The final fix depends on Washington, he said: the federal government has not yet provided the guidance needed for the state to carry out the law and provide the worker payments.
“I am ready to see some action from the U.S. Department of Labor,” he said. “We simply need them to finish the rules and regulations so we can get the job done.”
Jessica Burrell, 34, of Lawrenceville, a massage therapist, is hoping the fixes can made soon. She has seen work disappearing and expects to file for benefits within a couple weeks.
“My husband is still working so we do have income coming in, but finances are getting tighter without my income,” she said.
With rents and mortgages looming and no immediate resumption of business likely, the stakes for workers are rising.
Jeffrey Brahm, 51, of Brookhaven, owns Tech-Go, which rents tech equipment, while also doing gig work as a techie and hustling deliveries for DoorDash. Now, there is no work and getting government help is crucial, he said.
The crisis came on so quickly, it wasn’t possible to prepare, he said. “I basically went from $1,000 or more each week to zero.”
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