More than 300,000 people have filed for unemployment in Tennessee since mid-March — including tens of thousands of people who are self-employed.
For freelancers, part-time workers, independent contractors and gig workers (looking at you, Nashville musicians), unemployment benefits are now available, for the first time, to an entirely new group of people. Which makes the process especially confusing: The system wasn’t designed for the self-employed, making the application difficult to fill out. And many states, including Tennessee, have not yet begun to process these self-employed claims.
Beyond that, the state’s servers and call centers have also been overloaded, even after its attempts to improve its systems, leading to complaints of glitches on the unemployment portal and an inability to get quick answers.
So WPLN News has started to compile some answers to questions that listeners have asked us via Curious Nashville. This first post is geared toward people who are self-employed but will be useful for anyone filing for unemployment.
If you have a question that’s not answered here, please ask us one here.
This story was updated on April 21.
I have never filed for unemployment before, and I am kind of lost. I am a sole proprietor single-owner business. Where do I start?
This question comes from Will Bledsoe of Franklin. Let’s start by establishing the vocabulary. There are now four kinds of unemployment aid, all with confusingly similar names:
- First, you have your standard Tennessee Unemployment Benefits, which has always been available for workers laid-off from a company under certain circumstances. But many kinds of workers, including the self-employed, didn’t qualify for that. Until…
- The federal CARES Act (which stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) established a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA. It temporarily extends weekly unemployment benefits to self-employed individuals, people seeking part-time work, people without sufficient work history normally required to qualify for benefits, and anyone else who is normally ineligible for state unemployment insurance. So as long as you’re “unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work,” according to the CARES Act, you can file for unemployment. The only caveat? You have to be out of work because of the pandemic. More on that in the next section.
- There’s also a supplemental $600 benefit called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, available to anyone who receiving unemployment aid. More on that further down.
- Finally, there’s a new temporary program called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. (These names!) This provides 13 weeks of aid to people who have already been on state unemployment and have exhausted their benefits.
Once you start filing for unemployment, you have to re-certify every week. But as we’ll explore below, that’s been an issue for self-employed people, because their initial applications haven’t been processed yet.
I’m not sure I lost work because of the pandemic. How is that defined?
The qualifications for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are pretty broad. Applicants have to prove they’re out of work for at least one of the following reasons:
- You or a family member have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and you’re seeking a medical diagnosis;
- You’re providing care for a member of your family or household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- You’re the primary caregiver for a child or household member who can’t attend school or another facility because of COVID-19, and the school or facility is required for you to work;
- You can’t reach your place of employment because of a mandatory quarantine or because you’ve been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine;
- You were scheduled to start working, but you lost the job or can’t reach the job as a direct result of COVID-19;
- You’ve become the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of household has died of COVID-19;
- You had to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19; or
- Your place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19.
The CARES Act states two explicit reasons why you might not qualify: if you are able to telework with pay but are choosing not to, or if you’re receiving paid leave from a job.
We’ve gotten a number of questions about this, like from Mark Dylan in Nashville: “There have been positive cases of coronavirus at work. I do not feel working conditions are safe. If I quit, can I still get unemployment?”
Mekesha Montgomery, a labor attorney with Frost Brown Todd, says the answer is likely no. “You have to have some tie into why COVID was a part of leaving, other than, ‘I’m just afraid of it,’ ” she said.
But in the case of a mother asking if she qualifies because her child’s school has closed for the rest of the year and she’s not able to look for work, Montgomery says that does qualify under the CARES Act guidelines.
Why is the unemployment portal so slow or confusing?
We’ve gotten several versions of this question (sometimes with expletives) over the past week. The short answer is: There are more people applying online at Jobs4TN.gov than the system was designed for, and they’re trying to catch up. Now, the state is onboarding new computer servers, and it’s staggering the days on which people are allowed to certify, depending on the last digit of their social security number (explained in this tweet).
However, even with the staggered filing days, the state is still reporting problems. As of Monday, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development tweeted that it had to shut down the site to enrollees for four hours in the middle of the day, leading to a slew of angry responses.
And fair warning for those who can log in: If you’re self-employed, it will be a confusing process, because the general unemployment application wasn’t designed for you. The state explains many of the idiosyncrasies on this FAQ, so look it over before you begin.
Why were we told that those of us who are self-employed would be eligible for unemployment, yet we’ve received letters of denial?
This was asked by Elizabeth Estrada of Nashville. It goes to one of the idiosyncrasies of filing as a self-employed worker. Even after filing properly, you will receive a monetary determination “stating you are not eligible,” according to the state’s FAQ. But “this is not a denial of benefits; it is just telling you that you do not have wages for normal unemployment insurance.”
So if you’re self-employed, you haven’t received a letter of denial yet. Or a letter of acceptance, for that matter. The problem is this: Because the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is so new, many states, including Tennessee, haven’t started processing this claims.
Once the program for self-employed people is up and running, the state will check your eligibility and you’ll receive a true determination.
How much longer will it take for self-employed gig workers to start receiving payments?
This question comes from Nashonta McDowell of Nashville. Tennessee Department of Labor spokesman Chris Cannon responds that the state will start processing claims for self-employed people within a “matter of days.”
Once the state starts processing these claims, eligible people will be paid retroactively for the missed weeks. Cannon notes that people now have five weeks to make up claims if they were unable to get into the system before.
And although this delay can be panic-inducing for people living without paychecks, this isn’t a Tennessee-specific problem. Just search “unemployment frustration” online for a smattering of news articles from many states.
Why did self-employed people who applied weeks ago get reset and had to reapply? It wiped out several previous weeks of certification.
This was noted by Heather Williams of Nashville. Cannon says a glitch in the system at the start of the new quarter — April 1 — has been causing a slew of issues, including for self-employed people. As of right now, self-employed people aren’t even able to re-certify their weekly claim. But if you applied before April 1, your initial application is still in the system and you don’t have to re-apply, Cannon says.
How much money can I get?
For the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the maximum payout in Tennessee is $275 per month. The exact amount is determined by your previous 18 months of wages; Cannon says the average payment right now is $227.
If you were forced to stop working due to coronavirus at any time after Jan. 27, you are eligible to receive benefits for any week after that date.
As we mentioned above, the CARES Act also establishes a supplement called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides an additional $600 for anyone who receives at least $1 in unemployment during this time. This supplement will be paid until July 31, and it’s rolled into your normal benefits. You don’t have to apply separately for it.
The bad news for self-employed people? This additional $600 supplement won’t be processed until those PUA benefits are processed. Again, Cannon says this should happen in a “matter of days.”
I had a full time job AND an Airbnb, I now work 32-35 hours and zero income from Airbnb. Do I qualify for any compensation?
Thanks to Shelley Martin of Nashville for this question.
We can’t speak to your individual circumstance, but there are two ways we’ve heard this question answered.
The first is from Cannon. He says if you’re still making more money each week than what your weekly benefit amount would be — which depends on your previous income but is no more than $275 — you won’t actually receive any unemployment money from the state.
The second is from Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Stettner says a good rule of thumb is you’re probably eligible if you’ve lost at least three quarters of your income. You may even qualify if you still have a full-time job. The key is whether the public health crisis has directly caused you to lose the vast majority of your income.
But even if you’re not sure, you should still apply. “It’s definitely worth trying to get the money,” Stettner says.
Do I have to search for a job while I’m receiving unemployment benefits?
No. Tennessee has temporarily suspended the usual work-search requirements, per the governor’s Executive Order 15. But the state’s unemployment website may not have been updated to reflect that.
I have no documented income because I work gigs for cash. Can I qualify for benefits?
Yes, but it’s going to be difficult, says Andrew Stettner, because you have to provide documentation of your earnings.
“You have to have some evidence,” Stettner says. “Maybe you got pay envelopes, even handwritten ones with the amount that you got paid. Maybe you got paid in checks that people wrote ‘cash’ on, but you took a picture of those checks, or you’ve got the canceled checks.”
Successfully proving that you received income could take months, especially while unemployment offices are so overloaded, he says. But it’s worth trying because the potential benefits are significant.
Are non-citizens (e.g. green card holders) eligible for benefits?
Ally Schweitzer of WAMU contributed to this reporting.