Self-employed workers left in limbo while waiting for unemployment benefits

Published: Apr. 1, 2020 at 11:15 PM CDT
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The Kansas Department of Labor is working to address issues as tens of thousands apply for unemployment benefits.

Wednesday, some beneficiaries found their payments hadn't been processed. Kansas DOL said it was a technical issue impacting those who were supposed to be helped by the one week waiting period that was announced by Governor Laura Kelly.

Kansas Labor Secretary Delia Garcia said, "The system had an error for processing payments, and the payments did not process. We are well aware of it. We’re working on a hard solution right now. We want you to know that you will be paid, and it will be resolved, and payments will be processed once we get through that."

The agency has also been taking other steps, including doubling staff from last week and bring on employees from other state departments.

With 55,428 initial unemployment claims filed the week ending March 28, including 17,967 in Sedgwick County, that has overwhelmed the department.

It's leaving people applicants like Joshua Fontes struggling to get in contact with a representative with the Kansas Department of Labor.

"I’m probably [called] close to 200 times today alone. I’ll sit there; it’s busy. I feel like I’m trying to get through to a radio station. I can’t do it. It's frustrating. I’m not trying to win $100 here, I’m trying to support my family," said Joshua Fontes.

Owner of Quality Custom Construction LLC, the small business owner and the general contractor said this time of year is when business is beginning to boom.

Fontes said, "People get tax returns, they have extra money, they start doing those projects they thought about over the winter. The springtime is usually a good time to do that. Usually, these are my peak months."

Not this year. COVID -19 has canceled or delayed many of the jobs he had scheduled, forcing him to lay off his four employees.

Now, he's following the stay at home order.

"I said this might be a good time to close up shop, stay at home, and do my part. My daughter is a health worker; she works in a senior home. The less contacting we could be doing, the better it is for the community," said Fontes.

But that means no income right now and why Fontes turned to file for unemployment.

"We’re trying to do the right thing and what the state and feds have wanted us to do and that to stay home. We’re trying to do that; we’re trying to do our part. It’s very frustrating when that assistance for us to actually do that isn’t there," said Fontes. "When we start running out of foods and provisions in the house, without any form of viable income, what are we going to do? We can’t just sit here in an empty box."

As a general contractor, Fontes is considered an independent contractor or self-employed. Usually, that wouldn't make him eligible for unemployment.

However, as part of the federal stimulus, those restrictions were lifted.

"Decided to file for unemployment, knowing that they’re going to take into consideration the independent contractors. Take that into consideration. A day or two later, I checked the status, and I was able to log in on the site, and it asked me to file for a weekly claim," said Fontes.

His claim has been deemed "not entitled," which is why he's trying to reach out to the Department of Labor to get his questions answered, but he feels stuck because no matter how many times he calls, there's a busy tone.

Labor officials said Wednesday, they're still working on getting information on what they're supposed to do.

"We’re kind of in a bit of a limbo when it comes to that. We’re still waiting on guidance on that from what they call the pandemic unemployment assistance. However, we do ask that those of you who are self-employed or working as an independent contractor that you do go ahead and file an initial application for regular benefits," said Kansas Department of Labor UI training manager Alex Adame. "One of the things we’re fairly certain will be a requirement of that is that you’re not able to receive regular unemployment but eligible to receive the pandemic unemployment assistance, so it’s very important that you go ahead and file an initial application for regular benefits."

Kansas DOL said by having that on file, it will help the process along when that guidance is available.

For Fontes, he said Kansans impacted by the economic toll of COVID 19 can't wait.

"We’re running two weeks without that income, and we’re at the first of the month worried. A lot of Kansans are worried," he said.

Fontes has also filed for disaster assistance through the Small Business Administration and said with that, it would allow him to pay his four employees, but is still waiting to hear back on the status of his application.

The Kansas Department of Labor said they hope to hear from federal officials come next week on what the process will be for self-employed workers or independent contracts when it comes to filing for unemployment.

Answers are also expected when it comes to the $600 bonus for unemployment benefits that was also part of the stimulus package.

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