Courtesy of the DOL

The red button for self-employed and gig workers who are filing for unemployment under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is now available on the Department of Labor website.

The website will accept applications from self-employed individuals, including independent contractors and gig workers, who have already gone through the first step and filed through the state unemployment system, and have received a notice in the mail from the Labor Department.

The red button, which is the second step in the process, will help the self-employed or gig workers access up to $649 per week. The minimum is $198 per week. The benefits are payable for 39 weeks of filing, regardless if the weeks are partial or total benefit weeks.

“We worked very hard to get this to fruition,” Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said of the new PUA system.

The agency has never provided unemployment benefits to self-employed people before because they’ve been ineligible for unemployment insurance. The federal CARES Act opened it up to this population.

“In these times when the pandemic has forced so many small businesses to temporarily close, we feel honored to help these workers for the first time ever,” Westby said.

The system went live Thursday morning at 10 a.m., and not everything is perfect.

He said they are dealing with a 40-year-old system based on COBOL, which is short for the “common business-oriented language” developed for computers in 1959, and they can only do one round of testing per night. However, the new PUA system has to interface with the old COBOL system.

Deputy Labor Commissioner Dante Bartolomeo said they put the red PUA button up Thursday morning and they are still working out the kinks and receiving feedback.

Westby said earlier this week that about 38,000 people had made it through the first step of the filing process and now can start with the second step today.

“If they are deemed eligible they will receive payment within a week,” Bartolomeo said.

In order to be deemed eligible they will need to upload their 2019 tax returns. If they haven’t filed those taxes yet then they can attest they are self-employed and receive the minimum payment of $198 per week. Also, if they don’t plan on having their taxes done anytime soon, they can upload additional documentation about their business within the next 21 days to argue they deserve more money.

Of the more than 1.9 million workers in Connecticut, he estimates that about 20% are unemployed at the moment, which is the most since the Great Depression of 1929.

The state has processed about 426,000 claims and paid out more than $1 billion. But there’s still more than 49,000 regular claims pending and the 38,000 PUA claims that are outstanding.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Westby said.

Connecticut’s unemployment rate was 18% for the week ending April 18. Based on the number of claims filed since then, versus the state’s total workforce of about 1.9 million, Westby said Connecticut should easily be at 20% unemployment by the time the next report is issued.

Among the many questions from reporters during Thursday’s call was whether workers, who are told to report to work, could receive unemployment benefits if their employer is requiring them to work in an unsafe environment with respect to the likelihood of spreading contracting COVID-19.

Bartolomeo said that due process is available to both workers and their employers through the department’s appeals process for unemployment claims.

The department was also asked about workers who have yet to receive payments through the Shared Work Program, which was set up in 2014 as an alternative to layoffs for employers struggling to make ends meet, and who have opted into the program. Workers are allowed to keep their fringe benefits while receiving from the state a partial reimbursement of their pay reduction.

Westby said that the system was expected to start processing payments today for 4,500 workers through the Shared Work Program.