DC Freelancers & Unemployment: Help… but not nearly enough

Recently, DC-based freelancers provided testimony to DC City Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development about how freelancers experienced the economic pains of COVID-19 uniquely, and how the unemployment system used by the Department of Employment Services (DOES) is not set up for how we as self-employed professionals work.

In this extended series, you’ll hear from more freelancers who helped make the case for an inclusive unemployment system for ALL workers, including those working for themselves. Next up is Jill Raney, Founder & CEO of Practice Makes Progress We teach digital strategy and anti-oppression skills to progress-minded people..

I’ve been self-employed for 5 years as the sole proprietor of a consulting business. My business is called Practice Makes Progress and we do anti-oppression skills building trainings, primarily in-person trainings. I prepare carefully for lean times because my business revenue is unpredictable month to month and year to year.

The economic crisis of the coronavirus pandemic is different. Every client and client lead disappeared on me in mid-March and I wasn’t able to get a single client lead to talk to me about new business again until June. In six months I was only able to secure one contract for one training.

I’m proud and relieved to say that yesterday when I submitted my weekly filing I was able to report that I have returned to full-time work. I spent the spring and summer taking steps to change the nature of my business so that this crisis won’t cause me to lose my home or health insurance. Changing my business model takes time, and I’m very grateful that the federal CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program so I could receive unemployment insurance payments during this unprecedented crisis.

I’ve had two profound frustrations with my experience of DOES administration of PUA. One: slowness or outright failure to change paperwork language to reflect the experiences of self-employed people. Two: I only ever received $179 a week with no indication of how much longer I’ll need to wait for DOES to calculate my actual weekly benefit eligibility and make retroactive payments.

First: exclusionary and confusing paperwork.

I applied for unemployment on March 31, using the only form available on the DOES website at the time, which had not been updated to reflect the PUA program or other changes from the CARES Act. I received a letter in the mail saying I was ineligible. I submitted an appeal via email and was about to send a copy of my appeal through snail mail when I learned on Twitter that DOES was working on releasing a version of the unemployment application for self-employed individuals. I then applied for PUA unemployment through the new form on the day it became available, April 24, three and a half weeks after my first application, nearly a full four weeks after the CARES Act made me eligible for unemployment. It was only Councilmember Silverman’s activity on Twitter that adequately informed me of when or how I could apply for this government program I was eligible for and desperately needed.

Every week I’ve filled out the unemployment weekly claim form on the DOES website. Every week this form forces me to misrepresent my experience as an unemployed self-employed person. The weekly claim form includes the yes/no question “Did you perform work during the week claimed?” and when you answer Yes to this question, the web form, which DOES encourages over the paper form, adds an additional section to the form that asks the following questions:

Are you still working for this employer? yes/no
Number of hours worked this week:
Gross weekly amount earned: $
Enter employment start date: MMDDYYYY
Enter employment end date: MMDDYYYY
Employer name:
Employer address:

The form will not allow a user to submit if the answer to “Did you perform work during the week claimed?” is yes but the answer to “Gross weekly amount earned” is zero. I’ve performed work every week of the pandemic but I’ve only received pay for my work in some of those weeks. The number of hours that I work and whether and how much money I receive that week from clients have nothing to do with each other. This form forces me to lie. I’m  afraid that I might be investigated for unemployment fraud because the paperwork DOES provides does not give me any possible way to accurately reflect the facts of my unemployment.

Second: the weekly benefit rate.

Unemployment insurance isn’t meant to be pocket change to cover incidentals. It’s meant to ensure that nobody goes hungry or loses their home because they lost their job.

Recent studies found that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in DC is $2,234. I pay [less than the average, redacted for privacy] for my one-bedroom apartment. $179 a week is $716 a month, less than half the average monthly rent. This $179 a week is better than nothing and I’m, again, very grateful that the federal CARES Act made me eligible for unemployment. But $179 a week is nowhere near adequate to protect me or any other unemployed DC resident from homelessness. And it’s much less than what I am eligible for.

I was under the impression that DOES was overwhelmed by the volume of unemployment filings in the spring and would catch up as soon as they could on calculating the weekly benefits of self-employed unemployed individuals who were only temporarily going to receive $179 a week. I started receiving benefits on May 1. I received my most recent benefits payment on September 30 and I still only received $179 a week in benefits. The additional weekly $600 in federal money from the CARES Act was very helpful, but that program ended 2 months ago. Rent is due every month.

By what date can I expect DOES to calculate the actual weekly benefit amount I’m eligible for, and by what date can I expect to receive back pay for the amount this public benefit owes me?

Again, I am very relieved that I’ve been able to change my business model enough that I’m starting to bring in revenue again, but things are not back to normal. The majority of my client base are nonprofits, many of which are understandably very worried about their long-term donor prospects and therefore very reticent to take on nonessential projects like the professional development services my business provides. Under this economic forecast, my business won’t return to “normal” for at least a year. I still need the benefits that I am eligible for, even though I’m no longer eligible for future weeks of benefits.

Finally, I also want to name my broader frustration with the DC government’s failure to adequately protect DC residents from the economic fallout of necessary public health measures.

The District of Columbia has a lot of unemployed people, and a lot of understaffing of social service programs that DC residents especially need during the pandemic. A sufficiently ambitious government effort could have bridged these two problems by hiring unemployed people to do urgent work to support residents in the early days of the pandemic. I do not understand why there hasn’t been a more concerted effort to offer temporary jobs in acutely necessary social service departments to unemployed DC residents whose health status would allow them to work. Instead of waiting months for DOES to calculate that I’m eligible for up to $425 a week in benefits, I would have gladly taken a temporary position this spring and summer to handle paperwork at DOES, or do contract tracing, or sew masks, or whatever of the necessary work was within my qualifications or ability to train for. I tried to apply for a contract tracer position in the summer when I learned that the DC government was hiring, but I spent a maddening hour clicking through broken links and confusing job titles and could never even find a contract tracer position listed on the website to apply for.

Last week I finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel of my own unemployment, thanks to the the steps I’ve taken to change my business model starting to bear fruit, and what unemployment insurance I have received has been very helpful in keeping me housed and fed these past six months. But I know lots of people whose job loss from the pandemic is permanent, including my best friend, who’s worked in the bar and restaurant industry for the last decade.

This economic crisis is only going to get worse until we mobilize enough political will to enact new policies — and fully implement existing policies like PUA — that will ensure every DC resident can meet their basic needs. The needs for housing, food, and healthcare don’t go away when someone loses their job, or when a highly contagious virus shuts down workplaces for months on end. DC Council has a moral responsibility to do everything in its power to protect every DC resident from this economic crisis as well as this public health crisis.

Jill Raney

Jill Raney

Practice Makes Progress Founder & CEO Jill Raney is an ambassador for the internet and inclusion. Across their decade of experience in labor, LGBT, and feminist advocacy, Jill has built a track record of excellence in digital campaign strategy and infrastructure development. They are an expert trainer with broad experience in developing curriculum and teaching adults. Jill's proudest accomplishments to date have included building a national network of activists to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," connecting Members of Congress with striking fast food workers, and making people laugh as they nail new skills. Jill will teach you to set ambitious, realistic goals and to organize your heart out to accomplish them.