Independent contractors may find less money in unemployment checks

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Boyana Balta, an independent contractor who lives in Los Angeles, saw her marketing and staffing work evaporate due to the coronavirus pandemic. She applied for unemployment benefits but is receiving less money than envisioned.

Boyana Balta

Many independent contractors and self-employed workers could get smaller unemployment checks than they anticipate.

The situation is a result of how states process unemployment applications for this group of workers, who became eligible for jobless benefits as a result of the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus relief package enacted last month.

And it’s a potentially large pool of workers — between 10.5 million and 15 million workers are independent contractors, according to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and research conducted by academics at Harvard University and Princeton University. 

States generally determine eligibility for unemployment benefits based on W-2 wages reported by an employer. They also use that information to assess the size of recipients’ weekly checks, which are based on prior income levels.

That state framework is negatively impacting some Americans who earn the bulk of their income from contract work — reported to the federal government on 1099 tax forms — but who also, to earn extra cash, have side jobs that are reported on W-2 forms.

Here’s the problem: Some, if not all, states are looking at the more-meager W-2 income to determine the size of weekly unemployment checks. Some workers may be getting short-changed as a result.

That’s the case for Boyana Balta, a self-employed worker living in Los Angeles whose income has evaporated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Balta made roughly $80,000 last year. Most of her income, about 95%, was earned through the marketing and staffing work she does as an independent contractor.

The remainder, approximately $5,000, was from W-2 work as a commercial actor and sporadic shifts at Amarone Kitchen and Wine, a restaurant owned by Balta’s friend.

Balta began receiving unemployment benefits in recent weeks after applying with the state on March 18.

But California is paying unemployment based off her $5,000 of W-2 income. Balta is receiving $67 a week from the state, much less than she expected.

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If she didn’t have any W-2 income, she’d be entitled to an extra $100 a week (or, $400 a month) at minimum, according to state rules.

Workers in California are entitled to a maximum of $450 a week, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

“I didn’t realize those few W-2 earnings would persecute me,” she said. “And I’m not alone.”

California’s unemployment office, the Employment Development Department, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Most states are likely to use an approach similar to California’s, according to Christopher Moran, a partner in the Labor and Employment Practice Group at law firm Pepper Hamilton.

That could potentially leave millions of self-employed Americans — such as full-time Uber drivers or other workers in the gig economy who work part-time elsewhere — at a financial disadvantage.

The coronavirus relief law, known as the CARES Act, significantly expanded unemployment benefits. It raised weekly jobless pay, increased the duration of that pay and extended benefits to previously ineligible workers like the self-employed and independent contractors.

The potentially reduced payout for these workers compounds the problems with an application process that has already been fraught with confusion and delays in many states.

I didn’t realize those few W-2 earnings would persecute me.

Boyana Balta

Independent contractor in Los Angeles, Calif.

To be fair, the CARES Act provides federal funding on top of state benefits, to the tune of $600 a week.

Balta, who is single, subsequently started getting that $600 in addition to the $67 state allotment, which she describes as a “huge comfort.”

However, under the CARES Act, those $600 payments will cease after July. (They’ll stop sooner for most Californians, on July 25, according to the state unemployment office.)

Absent additional measures from lawmakers, Balta’s weekly jobless pay would revert to $67 at that time — hardly enough to cover her $2,300 monthly rent if the concerts, trade shows and other events she depends on for marketing and staffing revenue don’t resume. 

“That extra $600 is going to end,” Balta said. “And everyone it’s going to end for is not going to have options.”

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