So, you need to apply for unemployment in DC as a freelancer or independent contractor…

For the first time ever, freelancers and other and independent contractors in DC could apply for and receive unemployment benefits from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

(Fun fact: PUA is a separate program from traditional unemployment in the District, and freelancers generally don’t qualify for traditional unemployment).

That’s a big deal, especially because many freelancers were unable to continue working once the pandemic’s impact became evident. Whether you were a photographer who couldn’t do in-person shoots, a clerk who couldn’t go into the office, or a travel writer whose resort clients canceled contracts, you were now eligible for a minimum $179 a week. But…

The process for freelancers to apply for and receive unemployment may be complicated and confusing since it is a new program. And, as we stretch into the 8th month of the pandemic and headlong into a second or third wave of COVID-19 case spikes, it may be helpful to have this guide handy should you ever need it.

Who’s eligible?

If your freelance business was impacted by COVID-19, you may be eligible for PUA. You’ll need to be able to prove that, but the good news is there are many ways to do so:

  • Letter, text, or email from a client mentioning they need to end the contract because of COVID-related issues. Doesn’t need to be formal. Does need to specifically reference the pandemic as the reason.
  • Bank statement that shows consistent deposits until a specific date at which point the payments stopped or slowed. Just redact any personally identifiable information besides your name and stuff.
  • Something else that shows the “Impact Date” – the date at which your business began to feel the negative impact of COVID-19.

NOTE: If you received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) payment, you are NOT eligible for PUA during the weeks your pay was covered by PPP. No double-dipping, my friends. Additionally, you should keep looking for freelance work while getting PUA benefits, because the “no double dipping” rule applies to getting relief money while available to work, too. PUA claimants (that would be you!) are required to report gross earnings from any and all work performed (or that you were or will be paid for (we’ll get into the below… but it’s confusing for us)) during a week during which unemployment benefits were/are claimed.

Oh, and if you started your business THIS year and you were employed in a traditional job for a significant period of time last year, you may actually qualify for regular unemployment. No need to go for PUA. Congrats? Sure. Why not.

How do you apply?

This is fun. PUA and traditional unemployment use the same back-end system. The system has been trained to know that you as a freelancer aren’t eligible for traditional unemployment. You must first apply for regular unemployment via the DOES website and you will likely be rejected. Fun, see? Don’t worry, though. In this case, getting rejected is a good thing. It means you may be eligible for PUA. When you get the unemployment rejection letter, you will then need to go back to the DOES website and apply again, specifically for PUA at this link.

Visit the PUA Portal now >>

How much are you eligible for?

Great question. The minimum you would receive is $179 per week. Your weekly payment will reflect the amount you WOULD have made in the same quarter last year. They call that the “look back” period. The base look-back period is broken down into quarters – Jan/Feb/March is the first quarter, etc. DOES will look at the past respective quarter for gross earnings and they determine if you’re eligible for a claim. Remember, it’s not based on your yearly salary or your annual gross income. It’s based on quarterly earnings.

Each week, you must fill out a form on the DOES website to confirm you are still affected and still qualify for assistance. On that form, you’ll be asked a number of questions about how much you worked in that particular week and how much you got paid — questions that may or may not make sense given your freelance business structure. The key thing to remember is everything should be based on a 40-hour week. You don’t have to tell me. I know that’s not how we work. But! If you want to get paid, prepare to do a little math to make sure they know how much to pay you.

Here’s a rundown of how your contract might be set up and how you should submit it:

  • If you bill your client hourly, enter the number of hours you worked and your hourly rate.
  • If you have a monthly retainer, divide the flat retainer fee into 160 hours (40 hours per week for 4 weeks) and list that as your hourly rate. Even if you don’t work every week of that month, you still report those hours each week.
  • If you have a value-based, project-based, fixed-fee client, look at the end date of the contract, divide the fixed fee by that many days/weeks/months etc. using the 40 hour week as a basis. If it’s one day’s worth of work (like a photo shoot) use 8 hours to calculate the hourly rate. If it’s a 3-month development project, divide by 480 (3 months of 160 hours each month) to calculate your hourly rate. You may have an hourly rate you use to come up with your estimate, so… that’d be super easy!
  • If you have a combination of project types, break them all down into hourly rates and add them together.

If this feels complicated to you, you’re not wrong. But remember, PUA is for folks who aren’t working or aren’t working much. So, if you’re working so much that you’d need to do this math, you may be making too much to qualify anyway.

What’s the future of PUA?

Right now, the federal government has only allowed funding for PUA till December 26, 2020. Fingers crossed, we’ll have access to relief funds as freelancers for as long as our traditionally-employed counterparts do. But it’s important that you have your voice heard by those making the call. Reach out to your Councilmember and those members on the Labor and Workforce Development Committee and let them know how important it is for freelancers and independent workers to be included in any packages that affect workers.  But remember, PUA is a 100% federally funded program and cannot be extended through the DC Council. Only Congressional legislative action would be able to extend this program.

If you have any questions, please visit the DOES website, reach out to [email protected], call DOES at 202-724-7000 or pop over to the Freelance DC Facebook Group as we can share our experiences with PUA.

This blog post has been reviewed by the Department of Employment Services (DOES) and therefore should contain the most accurate information through December 3, 2020. If you have any questions about your specific case, please email [email protected]. More staff has been added to monitor and respond to that inbox as well as review and respond to claims. Your questions should be answered in a timely manner.

Lisa Kaneff, the author of the article

Lisa Kaneff