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Gig workers worry about losing federal jobless benefits

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A COVID-19 Unemployment Assistance Updates logo is displayed on a smartphone on top of an application for unemployment benefits.

Gig workers have received unemployment benefits many would not have been entitled to before pandemic assistance began. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

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Jennifer Jessie has a one-woman SAT and ACT tutoring business in Woodbridge, Virginia. Heading into the spring, she had lots of work lined up. Then COVID-19 hit in mid-March, and the cancellations started.

“So when people would contact me, I would say, ‘I don’t think there’s going to be an SAT or ACT, and with money being so tight I would hate for you to waste your money,’ ” she said.

Her income’s down from $1,000 per week to less than $200. As a solo business owner, she wasn’t sure where to turn.

“It’s never really clear what I’m able to apply for. So I started with [Paycheck Protection Program] loans,” she said.

She didn’t get one, but she did get on unemployment — through the federal program that opens up benefits to independent contractors and gig workers.

She’s received about $2,000. That kind of money is a godsend in this pandemic-shocked economy, said Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute, calling it “absolutely essential.”

About 10 million or more people who wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for state benefits are getting them now. The federal government’s picking up the tab and adding $600 a week. But that’s about to run out.

“We are talking about a pretty mammoth drop in the income if the $600 is allowed to expire,” Shierholz said.

Take the example of Zac Crofford, a theatrical technical director in Austin, Texas. He’s been able to make it through so far on unemployment. But when the extra $600 from the feds disappears?

“I don’t know. That’ll leave me at $400 a month with Texas’ unemployment benefits, which is impossible to live on,” he said.

Crofford said he won’t have enough to cover basic expenses or keep up his studio and equipment until theaters open again.

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