Monday, October 2, 2023

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Self-employed? You may still be eligible for CARES funds

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times


Arizonans who are self-employed may qualify for unemployment insurance benefits and can apply, said Coconino County District 5 Supervisor Lena Fowler. UI benefits are available for people who have lost work because of COVID-19, including freelancers, independent contractors and other self-employed workers.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, makes this possible. “Let’s say you were working and getting a Form W-2, meaning you’re an employee of an employer. But if you’re self-employed, you’ll get a Form (1099-MISC). These two forms are two different things,” Fowler explained. “The self-employed are (workers) such as vendors making less than $240 a week. For the W-2 employees (who don’t make less than $240 a week), UI will reimburse them and provide benefits.

“So, you were selling burritos and now you’re not getting anything, or you were a handyman or a sheepherder,” she said. “There are those kinds of people (who may be eligible for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance). Right now, whenever people apply, it is retroactive to the time.”

Jeramia Garcia Ramadan, the acting deputy assistant director for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, said the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or the PUA, is a program that was designed for people who are not eligible for regular UI but are unemployed as a direct result of COVID1-19. And there are a number of specific qualifications listed in the CARES Act that one must fall under in order to qualify for the PUA program, which is available for eligible weeks from Feb. 2 to Dec. 26, 2020.

“PUA provides up to 39 weeks of benefits for individuals who are unemployed as a direct result of COVID-19,” said Ramadan, who is also a police administrator. “Weeks under which a person receives regular UI or ‘Extended Benefits’ are deducted from the 39 weeks.”

However, there are an additional seven weeks if Arizona DES triggers onto a high unemployment period. The weekly benefit amount is calculated the same as regular UI at 1/25th of one’s high-quarter earnings. The minimum weekly benefit amount is $117.

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The defunct Federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance benefit provided a $600 weekly benefit for the unemployed before expiring in July. “Another thing that is different from regular UI is that if you did not receive any wages within the base period (2019), so say you’re supposed to start a job but you weren’t able to start a job because it closed due to COVID-19, then you’d qualify for the minimum weekly benefit amount,” she explained. “If you earned insufficient wages, you’d also qualify for the minimum weekly benefit amount. The maximum weekly benefit amount is $240, just like regular UI.”

Unemployment soars

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S., throwing tens of millions of people out of work, unemployment soared to the highest level since the Great Depression, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which reported in May that 20.5 million jobs were lost as the nation locked down.

The jobless rate soared to 14.7%. The highest monthly job loss before the pandemic was 2 million after World War II in 1945. The worst monthly job loss during the Great Recession was 800,000 in March 2009.

Ramadan said between the benefit week ending March 28 and the benefit week ending June 20, Arizona DES administered $1.7 billion in regular UI benefit payments and $2.5 billion in PUA benefits payments. “The number of initial applications for unemployment insurance increased from an average of about 3,000 per week to a high of over 132,000 in one week and the continuing unemployment weekly certifications increased from an average of 18,000 to a high of over 226,000,” Ramadan explained, adding that DES is handling well over 8,000 calls per day compared to 500 calls per day at the beginning of the year.

“We have seen in that same time period, between March 28 and June 20, over 677,000 new claims for regular UI and 596,000 new claims for PUA. This compares to just under 60,000 new claims over the same time period last year.”

To support this work, Ramadan says, DES added hundreds of additional staff and hired a call center to increase the capacity of the call agent, along with adding staff from other programs to resolve claims issues and to assist in taking calls.

People struggling

Some people who have applied for unemployment insurance say they haven’t received a dime and no one will answer repeated calls to Arizona DES. One woman said she hasn’t gotten a check since June and doesn’t know if she’ll ever get paid. “(I get told), ‘Be patient’ or ‘upload this,’ et cetera,” the woman complained on Arizona DES’s Facebook page. “Still in progress since June. Just wish we all get paid.” Another woman said she’s been waiting since May. And another complained, “I have an approval letter and still can’t get my money! Five weeks, no payment. I am about to lose everything!” Arizona DES has a list of complaints like these.

“(Eleven) weeks here, no payment. I gave up on calling,” said another person. “I have uploaded everything … still, no help. They owe me $5,000. I’m so upset.” Fowler said at least two of her family members also haven’t gotten a response. “And they also put money into Bank of America and all of that money that was still in that account, they took it all back and some people haven’t gotten a penny of that back yet,” Fowler said.

“So, the whole thing is very complex. “But what (DES) is saying is, ‘If you have not applied, we will make sure that we process everything that is owed to you,’” she said. “I’m constantly working on it. I’m constantly getting phone calls and messages on Facebook.” Ramadan said there were approximately 30,000 regular UI claims pending adjudication two months ago.

Of that number, 20,000 were filed. “So definitely still a backlog that we are working on,” she explained. “We have onboarded about 600 new staff to work through these issues. And we continue to onboard to get that down even lower. Claims for the PUA program continue to rise in the hundreds of thousands.” Ramadan said DES has flagged many claims as potential fraud and those claims will need further review.

“But we have made significant progress in identifying case types and patterns to release payments to those claimants that are filing valid claims,” Ramadan said.

Latest data

A total of 391,758 Arizonans received UI benefits as of Sept. 12. The total number of those receiving PUA benefits is 1,024,073 and the total UI benefits paid is more than $11 billion. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona DES announced in August that the state implemented the new Lost Wages Assistance program to provide unemployment benefits of up to $540 a week, which includes $300 per week provided through grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The state became the first in the country to begin distributing LWA funds. But the LWA payments came to an end on Sunday, Sept. 13. Those who have not yet filed weekly claims or whose claims have yet to be processed may still be eligible for benefits, according to Arizona DES, which will continue to work with FEMA to provide retroactive LWA payments to claimants who applied for benefits between the week ending Aug. 1 and the week ending Sept. 5 as funding allows.

“This is a real process that people have to go through to be able to obtain the benefits,” Fowler added.


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