Pritzker sounds alarm: Trump administration trying to limit gig worker jobless benefits

The Pritzker administration sounded the alarm Sunday over attempts by President Donald Trump’s Labor Department to narrow the ability of self-employed workers to qualify for new COVID-19 jobless benefits, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

A package of unprecedented, enhanced and extended unemployment benefits in the emergency $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — known as the CARES Act — was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law March 27.

Allowing self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers — such as Uber and Lyft drivers — the ability to collect unemployment on a temporary basis is a key new program created in the CARES Act.

Illinoisans already receiving unemployment payments should have received another $600 last week, with the federal government providing the emergency extra cash under the CARES Act.

The extra benefits are intended to quickly send money to workers who lost their jobs or were furloughed or whose income sources dried up because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and the meltdown of the economy.

Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh told the Sun-Times, “The U.S. Department of Labor took weeks to roll out stringent and confusing regulations around how to implement an entirely new program.

“The state of Illinois is working through those regulations now and is contracting with an outside firm to help us stand up the additional benefits for 1099 workers in the coming weeks, but it’s clear the Trump administration is working to limit who qualifies for benefits.”

The 1099 is a reference to the IRS form self-employed people use to report their income.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that in “recent days, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who has expressed concerns about unemployment insurance being too generous, has used his department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance.”

The Post reported those new Labor Department rules will “make it more difficult for gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers to get benefits.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, at his Sunday briefing, said the state of Illinois has to build a new web platform to process the gig and self-employed workers’ claims.

The CARES Act should have created a unified system, he said, to “allow each of the states to immediately stand up an unemployment benefit process” for independent contractors. “But they didn’t do that, so each state is now struggling to put something up that will work for those independent contractors.”

Here is the Illinois status of the three key new CARES Act benefits for the jobless:

$600 weekly payment

The $600 weekly boost, paid by federal funds, goes to anyone who is eligible for state of Illinois jobless cash. Those payments started flowing April 6 for the people already in the payment pipeline.

The $600 extra payout will run from March 29 through July 25, according to the CARES Act.

If you have not yet been able to get through online able to sign up for unemployment, the $600 weekly payment will be retroactive to March 29 and should be included in your first check, the state said.

New coverage for self-employed

The CARES Act extends temporary benefits for people who usually do not qualify for unemployment benefits: self-employed, independent contractors and sole proprietors. This is the program the Pritzker administration is concerned about.

If deemed eligible, these self-employed Illinois workers will get 39 weeks of enhanced benefits starting in May.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security has not yet opened an online portal for self-employed workers to apply for benefits.

An extra 13 weeks of benefits

Illinois unemployment benefits normally run for 26 weeks. The CARES Act provides for the federal government to pay for another 13 weeks, starting on March 29.

This program has not yet started because the federal Department of Labor did not issue guidelines for the 13 extra weeks until April 10.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security estimate for getting the 13 weeks program up and running is in the “next few weeks.”

With the lockdown throwing thousands out of work, the state of Illinois unemployment system remains overwhelmed, with 513,173 initial unemployment claims as of April 4 — more than all applications received in 2019.

The Pritzker administration is giving emergency contracts to six firms to quickly bolster the mail, call center and online capacity of the jammed Illinois unemployment system.

For Illinoisans frustrated with getting through to the Illinois Department of Employment Security on the phone, the state is adding a new call center. Some one million calls have swamped the department since March.

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