Independent contractors and the self-employed are now eligible for unemployment benefits under the CARES Act and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. However, many are finding themselves stymied when trying to navigate their state’s application process. In a new video from the National Association of REALTORS®, two practitioners share their successful experiences, while employment law experts provide encouragement about how to prepare and what to expect.
“This is the largest relief package in the history of our country,” says Nia Duggins, NAR policy representative for business issues. “It’s fully federally funded but fully state-administered, and requirements will vary from state to state. It’s important to check your state’s unemployment agency website to find guidance.”
The CARES Act includes $2.2 trillion in programs and relief for workers whose employment has been adversely impacted by COVID-19. NAR advocated for the legislation that provides benefits to individuals who previously were ineligible. This includes many real estate professionals, who often are independent contractors.
The law provides up to 39 weeks of benefits, with the coverage period running from Jan. 27 to Dec. 31, 2020. States were required to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor to offer the benefits; significant program implementation challenges occurred in states, however, causing delays in issuance of benefits. Some challenges that many states are facing include an influx in the number of applicants applying for unemployment including claims under the PUA program, older technology that is not able to accommodate new claims, and inadequate forms or systems in place to accept claims from independent contractors and the self-employed, among other issues.
No matter what state they reside in, PUA applicants should assemble all necessary information to give their applications the best chance of being approved—and prepare to be patient with the process.
Jonathan M. Linas, partner at the Jones Day law firm in Chicago, says that states have a lot of flexibility, both in the amount of benefits they will disburse and in what documents they require from applicants. He adds that states are doing a good job paying out the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments, which applicants can receive in addition to the state-administered benefit. Applicants don’t have to apply for the federal component separately; it’s factored into payments automatically.
The common question about whether an applicant can receive both PUA and a Paycheck Protection Program loan is complicated, and Linas advises individuals speak with a financial professional about whether it’s possible for them. But he’s more straightforward about concerns over whether PUA will run out of funding as the PPP did: “My belief is no,” he says. “There is no reason to believe that the funds will run out. There is 100% federal backing for the PUA benefit.”
A challenge in the application process is filling out a form that was set up for W-2 wage earners. Natalia O. Delaune, a Dallas-based partner also with Jones Day, offers tips on the types of documents to have on hand: 1099s, pay stubs, bank receipts, and billing statements or invoices. If applicants haven’t filed a 2019 tax return yet or if they’ve filed jointly with a spouse, they may be eligible to receive at least 50% of their state’s average unemployment benefit plus Federal Pandemic Unemployment compensation, depending on the state. An applicant’s individual income will be considered even if they’ve filed jointly.
Beware of Scams
Delaune also has a warning about scammers who call applicants asking for personal information and credit card numbers. Scammers have spotted an opportunity to take advantage of the public’s naivete about the program. Delaune urges people to use caution if they receive unsolicited offers of help with applications. “There’s no filing fee,” she says. “And never give out your credit card number over the phone. Always verify the identity of the caller, and if you have any doubts, hang up on the call, and contact your unemployment agency.”
NAR’s FAQs provide much more information about emergency assistance from the government at nar.realtor/coronavirusue.
Crystal Berglund, an associate broker with Keller Williams First in Marquette, Mich., relayed her circuitous path to obtaining benefits. She first applied for benefits in the last week of March, before her state’s PUA application system was ready.
She was initially denied traditional benefits but told that she wouldn’t need to reapply for PUA when the system opened. Then she was told she would have to reapply after all. On April 13, the Michigan unemployment application system crashed, preventing her reapplication. She was finally able to reapply on April 14 and was approved on April 23, and on April 27, her benefits were direct-deposited to her bank account.
For applicants currently waiting, Berglund offers encouragement: “These are new programs. Just be patient. Go on your state website; read the questions and answers. Watch the videos, read, and listen. Just be really patient.”
Austin Rowe, an associate with Captain and Co. Real Estate LLC in Memphis, Tenn., had an easier process, but he waited to start until his state’s PUA application system was ready. He applied on April 8, was approved about a week later, and received his first benefit payment a week after that. Rowe attributes his success, in part, to sheer persistence. “When I had a question, I sent a help desk ticket to the [Tennessee] Dept. of Labor and kept sending one in every day until I received an answer.”
He cites a video on the Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development website as being helpful for applicants, regardless of their state, and offers some words of wisdom echoing Berglund’s experience.“Be patient,” he advises. “The system is inundated with millions of unemployed people now, and the agencies have a skeleton staff as it is. Find as many things on the website as you can to help you with the application.”