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Gig Workers' new unemployment benefits will not come quickly

Yash Bazian estimates that it took three or four hours to apply for unemployment insurance – much longer than if he had received pay slips from an employer. But Bazian drives full-time for Uber and Lyft in California – if the Covid 19 pandemic doesn't deter drivers and makes him nervous behind the wheel because of his own safety. These companies consider their drivers to be self-employed freelancers who are generally not eligible for unemployment insurance, although Bazian says his job has shrunk to nothing.

The form California uses to assess unemployment claims was clearly not made for bazians. The driver noticed it. Since 201

8, he has had to comb through the receipts and calculate his quarterly income. The form asked for his manager's name and permission to contact her. Who is your boss when an algorithm is in charge?

Now, more than two weeks later, Bazian has heard nothing from the state about its use. "I feel like the system is broken," he says. "This is not the way to treat people with stress and loss of income."

In an unusual move, Congress included hailers like Bazian in the $ 2 trillion pandemic relief law approved last month. So-called gig workers whose work is affected by the virus are entitled to up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefit. But the money doesn't arrive quickly.

Officials in government employment agencies are trying to find out who is entitled to what benefits and how they can get money. These offices, which had submitted an unprecedented 10 million applications in the past two weeks, received instructions from the US Department of Labor to process applications for gig workers only on Sunday. A spokesman for the New York State Department of Labor says the guidelines require workers who are normally not entitled to unemployment benefits to apply for government programs, be rejected, and then reapply for government-funded pandemic assistance. (The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment.)

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Some government unemployment websites have crashed. In New York, drivers have called thousands of times in the past few weeks or waited in queues for hours. "There has to be a faster way," said Moira Muntz, spokeswoman for the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents around 80,000 New York drivers.

"Everyone is just so confused," said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Labor. Last week, as news of the Federal Aid Act spread across the gig work community, the department posted a warning on its website: "Self-employed, gig workers, 1099 independent contractors – DON'T APPLY AT THIS TIME." According to Cartwright The department's IT team is hurrying to develop a website for those applying for state unemployment insurance and pandemic assistance. Construction of the site could take two days, four days, or two weeks, she says – no one is certain yet.

The self-employed have already received unemployment benefits from the federal government as part of disaster relief packages. "But it has never been used on this scale," said Rebecca Smith, director of the Work Structures program at the National Employment Law Project.

Muhammad Chowdhury, an Uber and Lyft driver in Atlanta, has applied for unemployment and has rejected benefits in Georgia. He said he stopped driving in mid-March after customers stopped requesting trips. "Fortunately, the savings I've worked so hard for leave me with a little more ammunition," he says. But if he doesn't get help in the next few weeks, "I'm doomed to fail," he says.

Many gig companies – including Uber, Lyft and Postmates – have set up aid funds for drivers who have signed Covid. 19 or were quarantined by medical officials. Uber and Postmates declined to say how many workers had received funding under the program last month. In a lawsuit on Monday, Lyft lawyers said the company had given lump sums to nearly 1,500 workers, less than 1 percent of the company's approximately 1 million US drivers. The money ranged from $ 250 to $ 1,000, depending on how many hours a driver works per month. Lyft says it will reevaluate the aid program on April 10th.

"Everyone is just so confused."

Kersha Cartwright, Georgia Department of Labor.

In California and New York, state-owned officials were enacting laws to include gig workers in the pre-pandemic unemployment system. In these states, hailers can get benefits faster and easier. But the process is also very difficult there, since it is unclear whether the states see hailers as employees or independent contractors. And even these states have no information about driver wages to streamline the application process.

The New York Labor Inspection Panel decided in 2018 that Uber drivers should be considered workers for unemployment insurance purposes. A state court ruled at the end of March that the state's Postmates couriers are salaried and entitled to unemployment benefits. However, until recently, officials had no record of gig workers' wages, so drivers had to wait months for benefits traditional workers received within weeks. On Monday, Uber spokesman Harry Hartfield said Uber had started submitting driver wage information, which should speed up the process. Lyft declined to comment on the issue, but a spokesman said the majority of the company's drivers also work for other companies and may receive unemployment benefits through these employers.

California is debating a new law that classifies gig workers as salaried workers into the pandemic. According to the law, known as Assembly Bill 5, an Uber driver and a Lyft driver have made emergency requests for benefits such as sick leave to California courts. Both cases are pending. Uber and Lyft say that AB5 does not apply to their drivers and that both companies are simply technical platforms that connect independent business people with drivers. Uber and Lyft lawyers argue in legal filings that reclassifying California drivers would force companies to change their business models in the middle of a pandemic. Uber has also made changes to its driver app in the state to show that its employees have more control over their business.

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