Freelance and Out of Work? Here’s How to Get Help Now

You thought you didn't qualify for unemployment. But these are different times.

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There are several options to help freelancers.
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Key insights:

Many self-employed creative professionals—from freelance copywriters and creative directors, to entire video production houses—are finding their client rosters are shrinking quickly.

Budgets are being preemptively slashed, if businesses aren’t closing shop entirely, laying off not only employees but also cutting ties with contractors. 

Thousands of Americans have found themselves suddenly out of work over the past week, as cities across the nation shut down to quarantine residents amid the escalating pandemic. According to treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the number of unemployed Americans is projected to grow to 20% of the country’s population—that’s 32 million people.

But even as the number of applicants for unemployment insurance benefits doubled practically overnight, countless more Americans are wondering what to do if they don’t appear to qualify for those benefits. The majority of Americans are employed in the service sector, according to Bureau of Labor stats, and a whopping 16 million people across all industries are self-employed.

Congress is continuing to hash out a bailout deal that could help. In the meantime, freelancers and self-employed entrepreneurs have access to some emergency resources, so even though things are changing quickly each day, here’s a simple guide to get you started.

Unemployment Benefits

The basics: Traditionally, unemployment insurance only covered full-time employees—not freelancers, the self-employed, or most part-time workers. But as quarantine rules force businesses across sectors to shut down temporarily, the government is rapidly altering the way unemployment benefits are handled. While unemployment funds are distributed by the federal government, the states decide how to run their own programs. 

What’s new: Things are changing very quickly. On March 18, the Department of Labor announced it was issuing an additional $100 million in Dislocated Worker Grants to states; those funds do include self-employed freelance workers. On Wednesday, the Senate and White House struck a deal on a $2 trillion aid package that, if passed, will extend unemployment benefits to freelance, self-employed and gig workers. 

Many states were already adjusting the qualifications for unemployment as the dire circumstances become clear, according to Demetra Nightingale, an Urban Institute fellow and former chief evaluation officer at the U.S. Department of Labor. “Some states may be covering those in nonstandard employment,” she said. “It could include some freelancers, day laborers, people who are just working for themselves in a nonstandard way.”

How to get help: Find your state unemployment office here. The National Association of State Workforce Agencies is updating state-by-state unemployment insurance rule changes as well. “It’s going to be easier to get through online than it is by phone,” said Nightingale, noting that unemployment offices are slammed with requests.

Hot tip: Consider whether you may be a misclassified employee and not an independent contractor. According to a 2017 report from the National Employment Law Project, an increasing amount of workers are misclassified as contractors even though they work for companies that treat them like employees (i.e., setting work hours, assigning supervisors, etc.) It’s called payroll fraud, and if you’re a freelancer who has worked in an office or had to report to a manager recently, there’s a good chance you were the victim of it. There’s no better time to let the unemployment office—and the IRS—know.

How to register for food stamps and welfare

The basics: Formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is issued in the form of a debit card that’s only for buying groceries.

If you have kids under the age of 5 or are pregnant, you can also qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a short-term food access program that allows recipients to buy from a restricted list of foods. Families with kids under the age of 19 may also qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF can provide families with cash assistance, childcare assistance and other emergency resources.

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