Bureaucratic problem leaves thousands of construction workers excluded from humanitarian aid

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When the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out nearly all of Daniel Herman’s upcoming work, he was hoping he would get help from the federal government.

Herman, 30, a videographer and musician from Boulder, Colorado, thought he would be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, a new federal relief program for the self-employed and independent contractors. The program was designed to support freelancers like Herman, who would not be eligible for traditional unemployment benefits.

But four months later, a bureaucratic problem prevented Herman from participating in the program. The issue is related to one of the jobs Herman had last year, sounding for live shows in a cafe. The store put him on the payroll rather than paying him as a freelance writer. Even though Herman only earned around $ 2,600 for the job, a small fraction of his total income for the year, that was enough to put him in Colorado’s traditional unemployment system and disqualify him from receiving pandemic assistance. unemployment.

“It’s like there is this huge carrot hanging in front of my face, but it’s a few inches from me and I can’t reach it,” said Herman. “This bill was written to help support concert workers, but that seems like a huge oversight. “

Legal experts, political analysts and entertainment industry leaders estimate that thousands of freelancers and construction workers are in a similar position, excluded from the PUA program because they earn a small amount of traditional wages. Snafu has left many people receiving much less weekly benefits than they would with PUA.

Herman’s unemployment benefits, for example, are based only on the money he earned at the cafe, not to mention the nearly $ 40,000 he earned from other concerts, such as playing the piano. and record concerts. So instead of at least $ 223 a week, the Colorado minimum benefit for PUA workers, Herman only gets $ 43. (Herman also receives a $ 600 weekly subsidy for the unemployed, but the federal benefit program is scheduled to end this month.)

“This is a very important issue that too few people are paying enough attention to,” Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights group, told About the challenge faced by concert workers earning mixed income.

The problem dates back to the creation of the PUA program in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March. The law states that a person may be eligible for traditional state unemployment benefits (on the basis of income declared on W-2 tax forms) or PUA (on the basis of income declared on 1099 tax forms), but not both. This leaves an unintended gap for workers like Herman, who earned both types of income last year.

“Fixing it will be a challenge,” Evermore said, adding that one solution would be for Congress to allow workers to choose whether they want to receive PUA or traditional unemployment benefits. “People are really missing something. “

Many of the affected workers are actors, musicians, and writers, which is why more than three dozen entertainment industry organizations, including the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, have pushed for a change. Hundreds of workers have joined Facebook groups to draw attention to the cause, and an online petition has garnered more than 10,000 signatures.

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The issue has also caught the attention of lawmakers, including Representative Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Who, along with 20 other House members, sent a May 8 letter to congressional leaders asking for a solution in the part of the next COVID-19 aid program.

But it’s unclear if that will be a priority when lawmakers return to Washington this week. Congress is still debating other assistance measures, including whether to extend the $ 600 a week that many workers receive in addition to their unemployment benefits, a benefit which is scheduled to end on July 31. . measures in many states, such as moratoriums on evictions – add the urgency of a legislative solution to ensure concert workers get the benefits they deserve, lawyers say.

“This money makes the difference between being able to pay the rent or not, to shop for groceries or not, to feed your family or not – it’s a very big deal,” said Jordan Bromley, a lawyer specializing in entertainment in Los Angeles and member of the music board. Coalition of artists, an artists’ rights group.

Bromley estimated, based on union membership figures, that more than 100,000 Californian musicians could be excluded from PUA performances because they have income mixes that disqualify them.

“The music industry was one of the first to stop, and we will be the last to start,” he said. “We’re looking into the summer of 2021 before the industry is fully engaged again, and it’s a full revenue stream for almost all of these artists that’s gone, so these perks are their only relief. “

When the music industry closed in March, 41-year-old Andrea Black from Maine lost all of his work as a tour bus driver for groups. She applied for unemployment assistance, assuming that the amount she would get would be based on all the jobs she had held as a self-employed entrepreneur the previous year. But it turned out that one of the groups she worked for paid her around $ 10,000 via a W-2, which was enough to exclude her from PUA.

Andrea Black, 41, of Maine, a freelance bus driver for touring groups, has been excluded from the unemployment pandemic assistance program.Andrea Black

Instead, Black received traditional Maine UI, which she estimates to be $ 100 less per week than she would have gotten from PUA. It also lasted only 13 weeks, unlike PUA, which offers 39 weeks of benefits.

“This is a huge sum for someone like me, who has no idea when they can return to work,” said Black, whose unemployment benefits ended last week. “It’s a strange feeling to wake up every day and figure out how long you can survive. “

Each state sets its own minimum amount that a person must earn on a W-2 to be eligible for traditional unemployment benefits. Advocates and policy experts say the minimums have disqualified people for PUA in almost all states.

Anthony DiNardo, 24, was kicked out of the PUA in Illinois for one job. DiNardo, a recent graduate from North Park University in Chicago, supported himself in college by coaching at baseball camps and officiating Little League games as an independent contractor. He also worked several weeks last year at an Amazon warehouse, earning around $ 1,900 in W-2 income. Amazon’s job allowed him to slightly exceed the threshold of $ 1,600 Illinois to receive traditional unemployment benefits, which meant he was not eligible for the AUP.

Anthony DiNardo, 24, was kicked out of the PUA program in Illinois.Anthony DiNardo

“It just seems like it’s a lot more complicated than it needs to be,” said DiNardo, who started receiving $ 51 a week in traditional unemployment last month, less than the minimum of $ 198 a week offered by PUA in Illinois.

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For Herman, the road to financial assistance has been long and frustrating.

He applied at the end of April, but did not start receiving unemployment benefits until June. By that time, Herman had already sold three of the four cameras he had used as a videographer to help him pay his rent, bills and groceries.

“It was like a Catch-22, because what I would need when I could work again, I wasn’t going to have,” Herman said.

Daniel Herman, 30, in his backyard in Boulder, Colo. Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

With the only camera he has left, he still hopes to find videography work with clients outside the music industry. He is thankful for the unemployment benefits he has received, but he does not know how long his savings will last once the $ 600 benefit is cut and he will only receive his basic unemployment benefit of $ 43 per week.

He hopes lawmakers won’t forget those who are left out of work and do not get the help they need.

“There is a rush to get back to normal,” said Herman. “But I hope they will not forget the problems that were not addressed in the first place. “

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