Gig Workers Would Get Unemployment Safety Net In Rescue Package

Mar 27, 2020
Originally published on March 27, 2020 5:19 am

With very few people booking Airbnbs or taking Uber rides right now, millions of people in the gig economy are seeing their livelihoods abruptly upended.

Take Ed Bell, in San Francisco, who rents out his in-law suite on Airbnb. That is his main source of income — he calls it his "gig" — supplemented by "side hustles" doing consulting work.

Business was booming. Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

"Last year I had approximately 90% occupancy, 90% of the days were occupied," Bell said. "In March I've had zero."

The $2 trillion economic relief package making its final way through Congress may soon offer relief for gig workers like Bell and Emily Kuckelman, who has been driving for Uber in Denver since 2016.

A full-time student, Kuckelman uses the platform to supplement her income from an internship. But she has stopped driving, because she is worried about spreading the virus.

That means she is losing out on $500 a week. She said she is trying to cut her expenses, and relying on her partner for some help.

Many people in the workforce these days are like Bell and Kuckelman, cobbling together several sources of income to get by. But, like other self-employed people, gig workers normally are not eligible for unemployment insurance if they lose those income streams.

"The platform companies have maintained that these individual drivers, grocery delivery people, are small businesses" rather than employees, said Veena Dubal, a labor law expert at the University of California, Hastings. "So the companies themselves have refused to pay into the unemployment insurance fund."

Now, gig workers will get some help.

The relief package passed by the Senate on Wednesday allows self-employed people to apply for unemployment benefits that they normally would not qualify for. The package also lets some of the self-employed access disaster loans for small businesses.

Labor experts say the government needs to give guidance on whether workers can claim partial benefits if they have several jobs and lose one of them, or if their hours are cut.

Gig workers say they are in just as much need of relief as big companies in the airline and hotel industry.

"We are suffering cancellations," said Lee Thomas, an Airbnb host in Queens, near JFK airport. "The government should take in consideration that these are hardworking people that suffered from nothing of their own doing."

The expansion of unemployment benefits in the bill means a lot more people will be seeking government assistance in the coming weeks — and it will take some time. A record surge in jobless claims is already putting a strain on state agencies.

In San Francisco, Ed Bell is hoping for an interest-free loan to keep him afloat this year. Most of all, he says, he needs help quickly.

"I need money in my pocket, with the least amount of red tape," he said.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Very few people are taking Ubers or booking Airbnbs right now, and millions of Americans are losing income because of that. Now, in normal times, these folks aren't considered employees of a company, and so they can't claim unemployment benefits. But the new relief package from Congress will temporarily adjust that. Here's NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Ed Bell's (ph) main source of income is his San Francisco home. He rents out his in-law suite on Airbnb.

ED BELL: Airbnb is my gig. And the other things I do are side hustles.

BOND: Business was booming until the pandemic.

BELL: Last year, I had approximately 90% occupancy. Ninety percent of the days were occupied. In March, I've had zero.

BOND: Bell is one of millions of people in the gig economy whose livelihoods have been abruptly upended by the coronavirus. Emily Kuckelman (ph) has been driving for Uber in Denver since 2016. She's a full-time student and uses the platform to supplement her income from an internship. But now she's stopped driving because she's worried about spreading the virus.

EMILY KUCKELMAN: My goal was, like, $500 a week. So I'm out, yeah, about - what? - $2,000 a month right now.

BOND: Many people these days are like Bell and Kuckelman, cobbling together several sources of income to get by. But like other self-employed people, gig workers normally are not eligible for unemployment insurance if they lose those income streams. Veena Dubal is a labor law expert at the University of California, Hastings.

VEENA DUBAL: The platform companies have maintained that these individual drivers, grocery delivery people are small businesses in and of themselves. And so the companies themselves have refused to pay into the unemployment insurance fund.

BOND: Now gig workers may be getting some help. The economic relief package passed by the Senate on Wednesday allows self-employed people to apply for unemployment benefits that they normally wouldn't qualify for. Labor experts say the government needs to give guidance on whether workers can claim partial benefits if they have several jobs and lose one of them or if their hours are cut. Some states allow that. The package also lets some of the self-employed access disaster loans for small businesses.

Lee Thomas (ph) is an Airbnb host in Queens near JFK Airport. His bookings have dried up as travel has come to a standstill.

LEE THOMAS: We are suffering cancellations. The government should take into consideration that these are hard-working people that suffered from nothing of their own doing.

BOND: Ed Bell, the San Francisco Airbnb host, is hoping for an interest-free loan to keep them afloat this year. Most of all, he says, he needs help quickly.

BELL: I need money in my pocket and with the least amount of red tape.

BOND: The bill means a lot more people will be seeking government assistance in the coming weeks. And it will take time for them to get help. Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "UNSHIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.