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AUGUSTA, Maine — Self-employed Mainers hit hard by the economic shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic are still waiting for relief as a federal program aimed at helping them will take at least another week to set up.
Maine has among the highest rates of self-employment of any state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unincorporated self-employed workers make up about 10 percent of the workforce here, compared with 6 percent nationally. Expansion of unemployment benefits to include the self-employed and independent contractors was part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus package that passed Congress and was signed by President Donald Trump last month.
But the federal government has indicated that the program, called pandemic unemployment assistance, will not start until April 10 at the earliest. Jessica Picard, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Labor, said Thursday the agency is still waiting on guidance from its federal counterpart on how to implement the program for self-employed workers and independent contractors. Picard said the state had “pressed for that guidance and continues to request it.”
She added that these workers should refrain from applying for unemployment until the new program is set up, because they will be denied under the current system. Traditional benefits are paid for by taxes on employers, so independent contractors are not eligible.
For self-employed Mainers, many of whom have been out of work for at least three weeks, the delays in receiving aid pose significant financial stress. Those confused about the process also say they have been unable to get their questions answered as state phone lines have been overwhelmed by record numbers of workers filing claims.
More than 45,000 Maine workers have filed new unemployment claims over the past two weeks, according to state data, amounting to 6.5 percent of the state’s seasonally adjusted workforce. Those unemployment figures do not include independent contractors, many of whom have been unable to work or have seen their businesses dry up quickly amid the economic downturn.
Jenny Brillhart of Blue Hill, an artist and freelance graphic designer, has seen demand for her services drop quickly as her biggest client canceled its trade shows and sales of her paintings slowed down. Brillhart, whose husband is also out of work, initially tried to file for unemployment benefits, but found the system to be “glitchy” and was ultimately denied.
The Maine Department of Labor’s unemployment homepage initially did not mention independent contractors before updating after the passage of the federal stimulus to indicate that these workers should wait to file their claims.
“We have some savings, but it just can’t go on very long or we’re not going to have enough money to go to the grocery store,” Brillhart said.
Dennis Bonville of Gray likewise has found himself unable to work due to the pandemic and unable to receive unemployment benefits due to his status as an independent contractor. A single parent, he has been taking care of his daughters since their schools shut down due to coronavirus three weeks ago.
“I know I’m not the only person dealing with this,” Bonville said. “But it’s very frustrating and I don’t know how long they think people are going to be complacent.”