NJ to begin issuing freelancers’ long-awaited unemployment benefits

Daniel J. Munoz//April 30, 2020//

NJ to begin issuing freelancers’ long-awaited unemployment benefits

Daniel J. Munoz//April 30, 2020//

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Freelancers and self-employed people who’ve waited weeks for unemployment benefits under a federal expansion program will finally see their first check come through in the next week, the state’s labor department announced Tuesday afternoon.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program was first enacted as part of the federal CARES Act, which U.S. President Donald Trump signed on March 27, allowing otherwise ineligible independent contractors and anyone self-employed – who has seen their income dry up in recent weeks – to receive jobless benefits.

Workers are being contacted this week by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, based on their Social Security number, about when they can go on the state’s website to certify weekly benefits.

Claimants who were notified to certify on Friday, Saturday or Sunday will receive their payment on May 5—two whole business days after they complete the process. They will also receive the additional $600 a week, backdated to their date of eligibility, if it was after March 29.

Benefits will be retroactive to the date that they became eligible, going back to Feb. 8.

Robert Asaro-Angelo, commissioner, New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development
Robert Asaro-Angelo, commissioner, New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. – NJBIZ FILE PHOTO

New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said that the state has spent the past month “to get this program up and running.”

“While it will take time to determine eligibility for everyone who seeks PUA benefits, the process has begun to get billions of additional dollars into the wallets of eligible self-employed workers,” he added.

Amid the spread of COVID-19 across the country, governors such as Gov. Phil Murphy have put their states in a virtual lockdown: including mass business closures, stay-at-home orders and a ban on public gatherings.

That has triggered soaring joblessness, and to avoid the risk of exposure to COVID-19, more people have opted to stay indoors rather than leave home and spend money, or have lost their jobs and in turn, tightened their belts.

“Not a single member of our more than 1,100-member group has expressed anything but frustration and outrage with the process to date. Not one,” said Kim Kavin, a freelance writer and co-founder of the advocate group Fight for Freelancers New Jersey. “Some of our members are musicians, dog walkers—people who have lost everything because their work entirely evaporated.”

Freelancers first have to apply for regular unemployment so that they can be denied and become eligible for PUA benefits, according to the New Jersey labor department—a process that has been disputed by the federal labor department.

“The Department clarified to New Jersey that in determining an individual is ineligible for regular unemployment benefits as a condition to receive PUA, the state is not required to fully process and adjudicate a regular UI claim,” a U.S. DOL spokesperson said. “However, simple self-certification that the individual is self-employed and therefore not eligible for regular benefits is not sufficient.”

The U.S. labor department has left each of the states up to its own devices to figure out how freelancers can apply for unemployment under the PUA program.

“Each state is setting up its own method, in accordance with USDOL guidance. Some states are building a new system to take applications for PUA,” said NJDOL spokesperson Angela Deli-Santi. “N.J. is using its existing infrastructure, having self-employed workers and independent contractors apply through the regular unemployment process.”

“Once the states received that guidance, they began to develop a process for determining who is eligible, how to verify income (these are self-employed workers who do not have W-2 income records), and how to administer benefits,” Deli-Santi said. “This is the ‘particular challenge’ the governor was referring to.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 3, 2020 to correctly identify Kim Kavin as a freelance writer, and not musician.