Pritzker again delaying unemployment benefits for independent contractors, gig workers

Pritzker again delaying unemployment benefits for independent contractors, gig workers

Illinois’ self-employed workers have been unable to receive assistance since the pandemic began. Now the state wants them to apply, be denied, and apply again for help.

Since Illinois’ stay-at-home order began at the end of March, nearly 913,000 workers have sought unemployment insurance, with many fighting the state computer and phone systems to file claims.

As bad as some have had it, independent contractors and gig workers have had it worse. Even though federal dollars were available for them on March 27, they were told not to even bother applying until the Illinois Department of Employment Security figured out how to fix its computers to accept their claims. Then on April 13 Gov. J.B. Pritzker said they would be able to apply starting May 11.

But now as they close in on that date, Illinois is telling them that for the beleaguered system to process their claims, they must apply, let the system deny them and then appeal that denial.

Self-employed workers, independent contractors and those participating in the gig economy, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, do not pay for unemployment insurance so are typically not eligible for benefits. As part of the federal stimulus package, Congress provided for these workers with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA.

On May 6 IDES announced new guidelines for how self-employed workers can finally get the promised assistance from Illinois. It recommended seeking the denial before the new system goes live on May 11.

“If claimants receive an eligibility determination of $0, they can then appeal that decision by providing verification of wages earned, or they can submit a claim for PUA benefits. Claimants who have already applied for and been denied regular unemployment benefits can submit a claim through the new PUA portal when it opens. Receiving a denial for regular unemployment benefits is a mandatory first step in determining eligibility for PUA,” IDES stated.

Pritzker previously blamed the delay in helping self-employed workers on the U.S. Department of Labor, saying it had stringent and confusing regulations. In Indiana, however, the state gave gig workers the green light to apply for unemployment beginning April 24 so they could be ready for assistance when PUA was ready.

Illinois’ unemployment line is thousands deep, despite the governor claiming there is not a backlog. According to CBS2 Chicago, there are over 12,000 Illinoisans waiting to get through to file for unemployment and the line is growing. With Illinois’ independent contractor population now being told to start claiming unemployment, just to be denied, the wait cannot improve.

“The computer system that was built to handle unemployment claims for our state was built in 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession, and it was built with the idea that unemployment would never really exceed what we saw in 2009,” Pritzker said on April 13. “But today we are seeing five times that number of claims.”

Other states face the same challenges as Illinois but have worked to get their states’ unemployment systems up to speed to meet the demand. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state partnered with Google so workers could easily apply online and then one of the 1,000 call center staffers would call applicants back within three days.

Illinois still struggles, despite weeks of committing to changes at the unemployment offices to make the process faster and easier. State lawmakers are still receiving complaints and intervening for constituents. Pritzker again blamed federal regulations for limiting who could process claims, calling 27 recent retirees back to service because they already had the training.

At least the Illinoisans forced from their jobs by the pandemic don’t have to rely on fiscally mismanaged Illinois to fund their relief. The federal government provided the money.

But Illinois state leaders still appear to be able to mismanage the unemployment claims system, creating a bottleneck and suffering that are beyond excuse.

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