People who work for themselves – those who file 1099s at tax time instead of W-2s – breathed a sigh of relief when President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion stimulus package that included expanded unemployment benefits that would put $600 in their pockets. That was the good news.
The bad news: In addition to being overwhelmed with an unprecedented avalanche of new unemployment claims, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development has no existing system for the self-employed to file for benefits – creating chaos, confusion and anxiety for thousands of citizens in need of some cash.
“The system for filing unemployment was not set up for those that are self-employed – and I understand that. I have no issue with that. I get it, ” said state Rep. Antonio Parkinson (Dist. 98 – Memphis), who has fielded numerous calls from constituents about the problems.
“The problem is that (Gov. Bill Lee) announced (the benefits) . . . and that lets everyone know that they can apply,” Parkinson continued. “Well, if they’re going to be able to apply, we need to be able to accommodate their applications.”
Data posted at jobs.tn.gov show that for the week ending March 14, 2,708 people applied for unemployment. But by March 28, an additional 133,588 claims had been filed statewide.
Regional data for the Greater Memphis area, which includes Shelby, Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale Counties show that more than 12,000 applications had been filed in the week ending March 28. There’s no data posted on how many of those applicants are self-employed.
Currently, Tennesseans can file for unemployment benefits at www.jobs4tn.gov/vosnet.
A bright red banner at the top of the page reads:
“When completing this application please answer the questions to the best of your ability. In order to receive benefits, you must complete the entire process. If you are self-employed, a 1099 contractor or a gig worker, please complete the application and BE SURE TO ANSWER that you are self-employed when the question is asked. After you file your claim CERTIFY WEEKLY.”
Parkinson said he went through the application with a self-employed constituent, experiencing the confusion and frustration having the system deny a claim – leaving the applicant wondering if they’ve made an error on the application. Even a confirmation email would be nice, Parkinson said.
“What I’m being told by the Department of Labor is that, yes, when they apply, they may get a denial – but we are still processing their application,” he said. “Well, you need to communicate that to the applicant, and they haven’t done that . . . and some people are just giving up on this because it’s so cumbersome.”
Web traffic is part of the problem, said Labor commissioner Jeff McCord. In a Facebook Live Q&A with state Rep. Jeremy Faison, McCord said that whereas his office would ordinarily handle about 10,000 claims over a three-week period, the past three weeks have seen a 250,000 spike in applications. He said his office has added computer capacity and support staff to help manage the surge, but still advises anyone applying to do so after 7 p.m., when the site is less clogged.
McCord said that his office only recently got guidelines from the federal government on how to disburse the stimulus funds earmarked for the self-employed and aims to start processing the claims next week, after Easter.
“Our goal was to start processing those because we got the rules, and we’re programming the computers for the next payment cycle which will be next week,” McCord said. “We didn’t want to start in the middle of a payment cycle, so well begin to start that next week. And we think we can meet that goal.”
McCord also laid out how, unlike W-2 employers who pay into unemployment insurance on behalf of their employees, the self-employed don’t pay a “premium” for unemployment insurance. That’s why the system isn’t set up for their claims.
“That system doesn’t exist – nobody’s been paying unemployment insurance for you,” he said. “That’s where the federal stimulus comes in.”
Still, Parkinson is frustrated that there isn’t a separate system set up to handle the self-employed – especially since the state has budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars for emergencies such as this.
“I’m not understanding why we couldn’t set up a separate system for those that are self-employed, even if it’s just to get them on record for their application, and also get a response to them,” Parkinson said. “We’re basically talking about an online form, an application process.
“I do completely understand that we are in a special time where, you know, this is not the norm. I get that. I get that,” Parkinson emphasized.
“But we need to think outside the box, come up with other strategies and other means of making sure that the people are actually getting served.”