In early March, Uber and Lyft driver Duane Hanson was feeling tense about driving to the airport. It was a few days after Oregon announced its first coronavirus case and he had picked up a passenger who rattled him.
“First thing out of his mouth was this huge sneeze. I was like, ‘Oh got a touch of the corona?’” Hanson chuckled ruefully. “He was very upset by that. But I’m married with children. I want everybody to be safe in my little world.”
Hanson told that story on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday morning he was sick. Aches and pains, labored breathing, a non-stop headache and fatigue — symptoms, he said later, it took six weeks to kick.
“Some days you’d really feel like you were gonna beat this thing and then the next day it would just wallop you again,” he said by phone.
On March 27, Hanson did something that increased his frustration. He applied for unemployment insurance benefits.
“Unfortunately, like everybody else, I haven’t seen a dime,” he said.
Hanson likely applied too early and he’s not alone.
March 27 was the day President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act, a more than $2 trillion economic relief package. It extended unemployment benefits to a group of workers who aren't typically eligible for them — the self-employed, gig and contract workers.
States rushed to create new systems to process the novel claims. Oregon rolled out its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, on April 28, roughly in the middle of the pack.
“The goalposts moved. For everybody. For all of the states,” said Gail Krumenauer of the Oregon Employment Department. “Oregon is not unique in this. No other state had this either. Every single state’s had to make this up from scratch.”
With traditional unemployment, employers pay into the system and provide wage records that states keep on file. People such as gig workers aren’t generally considered employees, though. States don’t know how much they’ve been earning or how much they can claim. To implement PUA, Oregon had to create a different system, to collect different documents, while also struggling to serve hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers filing for help through the regular system.
The new program is meant to be a lifeline connecting workers hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic to federal help. But just a week into the rollout, a number of those workers are already deeply frustrated: those who’ve been waiting in the unemployment queue all along.
Like Duane Hanson, driver Stephanie Strahan heard about the CARES Act and filed for unemployment at the end of March, weeks before PUA was ready. Like Hanson, she got stuck in purgatory.
“I have received absolutely zero confirmation in regard to anything being done one way or the other,” she said.
Strahan is re-filing her claim now, through the new system. Her original claim may be invalid. Dual applications such as hers present the employment department with a labor-intensive challenge.
“You have to be cleared out of one system to be able to get paid through the other,” Krumenauer said.
Krumenauer doesn't know how many self-employed, gig and contract workers filed before the state was equipped to process their claims, but she has a clue. At the beginning of this week, there were more than 23,000 unprocessed claims from the week ending April 4, right after the CARES Act passed. The state is chipping away at that backlog.
“We want to both get everybody in who’s eligible and get them processed under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and also clear out those non-valid claims so that they’re not just hanging around as unprocessed,” she said.
The question remains: Why did so many people, historically ineligible for unemployment benefits, file before the system could handle them?
Many likely heard news of the CARES Act and applied quickly, as the pandemic ravaged their jobs. For them, the stop signs weren’t clear enough. Others, such as self-employed illustrator Jeremy Joseph, felt they got the go-ahead from elected officials.
“I’ve known that I’m not eligible for traditional unemployment,” he said. But then he got an email from Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., saying the eligibility for unemployment had been expanded. Joseph filed on March 29.
Still others applied because the employment department told them to. Turns out, there’s a subset of self-employed people who sometimes qualify for regular unemployment benefits.
“Somebody would say, ‘Hey I’m self-employed but I lost my job, what should I do?’ And our message to that was when in doubt, file, and it’s on us to figure out your eligibility,” Krumenauer said.
That’s the message Strahan got as she ran out of work and money.
“I think I had $1.98 in my account,” she said.
She got behind on bills. She tried to get any job at all.
“I applied to pretty much every grocery store,” she said. “Applied all over the place.”
She finally got a job at New Seasons. Now, she’s an essential worker on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, still hoping for help with the financial blow.