Untold Number Of Gig Workers & Freelancers In NY Still Anxiously Awaiting Unemployment Checks

Stephanie Jeanty, a 30-year-old Bed-Stuy resident who’s been working in stage management and production for music venues for more than a decade, first filed an unemployment claim March 19th, after venues were forced to shutter to slow the spread of the coronavirus in New York City. Weeks later, after no word on her traditional unemployment application, she filed for the federally-funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, an expanded benefit that would help those typically not covered under traditional unemployment access benefits during the crisis, for gig workers like Jeanty.

But since then, Jeanty’s received no governmental assistance.

“It’s the most stressful and anxiety-ridden thing because I also rented an apartment in Brooklyn [in December] that I can’t even afford to pay for,” said Jeanty, who has organized a rent strike with more than two dozen other tenants who live in her landlord’s multiple Brooklyn buildings. “I had to explain to my landlord that this month I can’t afford to do it.”

Waking up every morning to call the Department of Labor and, like many of us, tuning into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s livestream press conferences, she says, “It’s like I’m waiting in anxiety and suspense for [Cuomo] to say something about unemployment.”

Jeanty is one of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have been waiting on unemployment benefits for nearly two months in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephanie Jeanty setting up at Avant Gardner in Brooklyn in summer 2019.

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Stephanie Jeanty setting up at Avant Gardner in Brooklyn in summer 2019.

Provided by Stephanie Jeanty

Cuomo has previously asserted that New York is surpassing other states in doling out benefits. More than 3,000 people are working for the DOL to manage the backlog seven days a week. DOL Commissioner Roberta Reardon said on Monday that $4.6 billion had been paid out to 1.6 million New Yorkers between March 9th and April 30th.

But as of April 28th, there were still 400,000 pending claims. And the DOL says about 90,000 New Yorkers haven’t been paid because they hadn’t filed a required weekly certification.

The department has not provided a breakdown of how much money it has paid out in traditional unemployment, which comes from state coffers, versus the federally-funded PUA created by the CARES Act. It has also declined to provide the number of pending claims among traditional unemployment versus PUA. A department spokesperson called the number “fluid” due to individuals filing multiple applications, including those who filed both traditional unemployment and PUA when, previously, there was a “cumbersome and contradictory” process required by the federal government.

But Reardon, the DOL Commissioner, acknowledged on a Monday call with reporters that workers who have multiple jobs have more complex claims.

“Traditionally, unemployment insurance is for people who have been laid off through no cause of their own,” Reardon said during a call with reporters this week. “The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is a brand new category.”

Federal guidance wasn’t provided until April 5th for PUA, more than a week after the CARES Act was signed into law. New guidance was issued on April 20th to simplify the process.

“These days there are so many workers who work multiple jobs. They may be getting a W-2 in one job and a 1099 in another job. That really complicates their claim,” Reardon said. “That said, we are working through all of them and they will absolutely be made whole. But it is a very different world of work than it was 10 years ago.”

Some 84 percent of freelancers who applied for government relief—unemployment, PPP loans, and others programs—have not received any funding, according to a Freelancers’ Union survey among 884 freelancers in New York State. Of that 84 percent, 80 percent are waiting to hear back on their application.

The survey also found 40 percent of freelancers have lost more than $10,000 in income since the crisis began.

Nicholas Rhodes, a 37-year-old Lower East Side resident who produces photo and video experiences, like photo booths, for events for venues and hotels, did get one $600 payment from the state in late April, the amount of extra money provided under the federal program. According to WGRZ, the department issued the $600 PUA payments while federal guidelines were being worked through for New Yorkers waiting on the pandemic payments.

But Rhodes, who has also applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program as a sole proprietor, hasn’t received anything else since.

On April 27th, he got a notice from the department saying he made zero dollars in 2018 and 2019 that he needed to dispute by April 12th, some two weeks before he even received the notice.

“It’s been a lot of one step forward, two steps back kind of feeling,” Rhodes said.

In other fun news, the @NYSLabor letter was supposedly mailed on 4/2, received by me on 4/27 & the request for reconsideration was due on or before 4/12 (15 days before I received the letter). Maybe the DOL can just give me back my quarterly tax payments and we can call it even?

— Nicky Digital (@NickyDigital) April 28, 2020

Freelance photographer Laura June Kirsch, 35, was, to her surprise, accepted into traditional unemployment insurance and even received a labor department welcome packet.

But she also has not received a single payment after filing her first claim March 31st. She filed for PUA as well.

“I’ve just been certifying assuming they’re taking a while, and the calling is a nightmare,” said Kirsch. “How are people supposed to live without being able to work and not having any money?”

“Realistically, you’re just in survival mode. I don’t know if my job is coming back, to be honest with you,” Kirsch said.

Currently in her Greenpoint apartment, she’s living on savings built up during an unusually busy winter season.

“I’m still trying to process what’s happening,” Kirsch said. “I wish [Cuomo] would wax poetic a little bit less about ‘New York Strong’ and give us a little bit more of a plan of action.”

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