Food may be necessary to life, but food writers are unequivocally non-essential. I discovered this in late March when the world closed down due to the coronavirus. Food producers and procurers, medical staff, first responders, and especially the guy who drives the toilet paper truck—all are essential.
But the writer of an immersive feature about what it’s like to spend the day as a candymaker? During a pandemic, not so much.
If I’d been furloughed or laid off from a legit full-time job, I could apply for the unemployment insurance that my employer had been regularly investing on my behalf. But the excitement and danger of being a freelance writer comes with no safety net—no sick leave, no profit sharing, and no unemployment insurance.
But on March 27, the national CARES Act was signed into law. Not only did it add a supplement to traditional unemployment payments, but it also created a fund to offer payments to workers who work independently on a gig-by-gig basis. This includes entertainers, rideshare drivers, and freelance writers like me, but the path to assistance is byzantine and shrouded in a clerical fog.
There was a phenomenon in old Soviet bloc nations, a kind of bureaucratic shared pretense. In the U.S., we have a term for it, catch-22, coined by Joseph Heller in his novel of the same name. It describes a situation where there is no logical route to the desired destination, so both the government and the individual agree to break the rules but pretend that they’re not.
If applying for traditional unemployment benefits is rife with this, applying for gig-worker Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is a minuet of charades and artifice.
The feds have mandated that before one can apply for the gig-worker benefits, one must apply for and be denied regular unemployment payments. The state Division of Employment Security’s relationship to the unemployed is complicated at best and adversarial at worst.
John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies, Ltd., a Chapel Hill-based research consultancy specializing in economic and social policy, has written about the politics behind the challenges of the system. In 2013 the Thom-Tillis-led state legislature completely restructured the system with one overt goal: to pay back the state’s rainy-day fund, which had been drained during the 2008 recession. They did this through draconian cuts to benefit eligibility, amounts, and durations.
While these cuts did position North Carolina’s unemployment-support systems among the least meaningful in the nation, they had achieved three classic Republican talking points. Restricting benefits saved the state $4 billion and repaid the emergency fund. It funded massive cuts to business taxes, and the labyrinthine applications process for extremely limited returns strongly discouraged the newly unemployed to persevere through the process.
Once I was turned down for the traditional UI (which, with the restrictions implemented by Tillis’s legislature, was not hard to do), I was permitted to apply for PUA. The earliest date applications for PUA participants were accepted was April 24. I applied for state UI that day and was denied within 48 hours, before applying for PUA April 27. The application uses the template from the state unemployment application. Because of this, most of it is not compatible with the situation of a nontraditional worker. A PUA applicant, by definition self-employed, must present as both worker and employer, which doubles the process.
Because this is a new program, there is very little cogent direction on the website. There is a chat function and a phone number for a help desk. But they both come with coronavirus-related issues.
Before the pandemic, DES had a staff of 500. The department has increased the number by 2,500, which “includes permanent DES staff, temporary employees, employees from other state agencies, and contracted call center agents.” While there is now a staff of 3,000, hold time to speak with a rep can sometimes be as long as five hours. There are also multiple levels of reps, and calls can sometimes be rerouted three, four, or even five times. The numerous transfers often mean dropped calls. One then has to decide whether or not to restart this hellish marathon from the beginning.
Utilizing the phone and online chat for help is eerily, frustratingly similar to calling the cable company during an outage. Each rep has a different explanation of a problem and a different solution, especially for PUA assistance.
The DES says the average wait for PUA decisions to be made and funds to arrive is seven to 14 days, and that 520,000 individuals have applied for federal PUA funds. As of August 24, 200,000 have had their applications approved.
After 15 weeks of waiting and letters to both my senators, my congressman, and all of my state reps, I still had no decision. I finally wrote to Pryor Gibson, the assistant secretary for the Division of Employment Security, appointed by Governor Cooper on May 27 to head up the unemployment department. Within a week, I had a decision.
On August 2, my original application was denied. That adjudicator turned me down because, inexplicably, they declared my work stoppage was not the result of COVID-19—despite my sending notes on three stories I’d been working on and emails putting those pieces on indefinite hold due to the pandemic. After going through another multi-layered process, I was given a date for a phone hearing on September 21. After 40 minutes, I was denied with no further right of appeal. Despite there being no federal or state guidelines as to income for qualifying for PUA, my referee (and that’s what they’re actually called) stated my work doesn’t bring in enough to count.
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