Self-Employed Workers Struggle To Navigate Unemployment

By Bret Anne Serbin Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Under "normal" conditions, self-employed workers would not be eligible for unemployment. However, the recently passed "CARES Act" allows these independent contractors to receive help. The thing is, a lot of these individuals are having a very difficult time figuring out how to access the support.

Kalispell

The infectious COVID-19 virus has touched every corner of the Flathead Valley's business community, including self-employed workers such as hairstylists and massage therapists.

For many of these independent entrepreneurs, the designation of their work as "non-essential" has cut off their only source of revenue and plunged their businesses into uncertainty.

"I don't know how this is going to go," said Tonya Atlee, a hairstylist at North Meridian Salon in Kalispell. "This is all just very confusing."

Most of the local self-employed community was forced to stop working abruptly on March 26 due to a directive from Gov. Steve Bullock. The expansive order, which suspended services at most public spaces except for grocery stores, gas stations and other businesses deemed "essential," left an unclear path for businesspeople like Atlee.

"A lot of stylists are in the same boat," Atlee observed. "We don't have the benefits that other people have--sick pay, retirement, health insurance. You just have to go to work."

While self-employed workers are not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits from the state, the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, made changes to allow benefits for "workers who are not eligible under traditional unemployment, such as gig economy workers, self-employed individuals or workers paid by 1099."

But these changes offered no immediate relief for the self-employed workforce.

"I right now am very unclear as to how I would go about getting any unemployment," Atlee said.

Following Bullock's directive, the state's online system quickly became overloaded as thousands of new claimants flooded the website and Montana Department of Labor and Industry staff were inundated with phone calls. To make matters worse, the new options to help self-employed claimants were not available at first, and many of those seeking benefits were confused by a complicated application they had never encountered before.

Atlee said she called the Department of Labor three times in one day right after her salon closed, but she was never able to get through to anyone for help. She tried the online portal, too, but she said it was "confusing" because "it's not set up for someone who was self-employed."

She ended up deciding to reschedule all of her existing appointments for two weeks down the line and hope for the best.

"I'm pushing everybody back and hoping I can get back to work," she said.

"My plan is to adjust as it comes...I'm hoping I can just make it through it." She said clients have been very understanding, even though she expects, "everyone's hair is going to be a mess, including mine."

But the bigger issue, of course, is her nonexistent income and the uncertain future. "It's really hard for my family to not have this," admitted Atlee, who has two children currently enrolled in college.

As an entrepreneur, she said she had made some contingency plans in case of an emergency, but she pointed out," You never think that your emergency is going be 30-plus days long."

Even when her salon is allowed to reopen, Atlee is worried her small business will be overrun by a sudden rush of clients, and the return to normalcy won't be so normal after all. "It'll be overwhelming when we come back," she predicted.

IN THE meantime, Laura Gardner, the manager at Job Service Kalispell, said her staff is available to help self-employed workers navigate unemployment.

"We're here to help, even though our doors are closed to the public," Gardner stressed. The office is currently closed to avoid in-person spreading of coronavirus, but Job Service employees can offer remote services by phone at (406) 758-6200 or by email at [email protected]

"There are still things we're doing, we just have to do that in a different way," Gardner explained. "We're doing everything in our power to help Montanans right now."

Job Service Kalispell staff can answer questions and help applicants through the unemployment insurance process. While they are currently bombarded with phone calls, Gardner nonetheless promised every caller will get a response on the same day they contact Job Service.

Kalispell-area callers may also be transferred to representatives who can help from the Polson Job Service office, Gardner said.

She reported Monday is usually their busiest day of the week, and lunchtime is typically the busiest time of day.

Gardner said her staff can help with issues such as resetting pins or passwords, questions about the $600 provided by the CARES Act to recently unemployed individuals and first-time use of the unemployment insurance application. She reminds applicants to file for unemployment during the first week they are unemployed to avoid issues with backdating their benefits.

She also reported the state's website to file for unemployment, MontanaWorks.gov, has been updated to handle the influx of claimants. She said the site is "running smoothly now," but IT staff are continuing to make updates.

She added Job Service Kalispell offers resources for employers as well as workers.

"We want to help our businesses during this time so that when COVID-19 is over we can pick up and start running again." she said. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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