Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Richard Gabriel Jr. has been making ornate mirrors, ornaments, candleholders and other items out of tin in the French-Colonial style for around three decades.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down tourist travel to New Mexico in March, the art galleries in Albuquerque and Santa Fe that he sells to began to shut their doors. Events like Santa Fe’s Traditional Spanish Market, which Gabriel said accounts for about 10% of his annual income, were called off, leaving him without many options.
“Even if (the economy) opens today, I’m going to need some help,” Gabriel said. “My business isn’t going to come back until the tourists come back.”
Making matters worse, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions currently has no unemployment assistance program for self-employed workers like Gabriel.
Even as state and federal business assistance programs scale up funding, sole practitioners, independent contractors and gig economy workers like Uber and Lyft drivers have largely been left to fend for themselves in New Mexico and many other states as work dries up.
They make up thousands of New Mexicans, including consultants, independent hair stylists, massage therapists, landscapers, personal trainers, tutors and those in a slew of other occupations.
Such self-employed workers, independent contractors and gig economy workers are not typically eligible for unemployment benefits. However, the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress last month, offers expanded unemployment benefits for self-employed workers. The program is called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
“I’m lucky I have some savings this year, but it’ll last about a month,” Gabriel said.
Their weekly benefit amount will be based on their 2018 income and added to the $600 per week benefit through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program during the pandemic, according to the state workforce department.
However, those who visit the New Mexico workforce department’s web page for workers affected by COVID-19 were greeted by a red banner stating the state agency is setting up a page for self-employed workers, and the department will announce when those workers can receive benefits.
Self-employed workers who have tried, including Bruce Byers – a minister and founder of Life’s Moments, a Rio Rancho-based church that focuses on wedding ceremonies – have been turned down for unemployment benefits because they are self-employed. Stacy Johnston, acting public information officer for the state workforce agency, said any self-employed worker who tries to apply now would be automatically denied by the system.
“Right now, our system isn’t built to handle those answers,” she said.
Johnston said the delay has occurred because the state was awaiting guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on details like how questions for self-employed workers should be worded and who might be eligible – guidance that did not come until last weekend. Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley has previously told the Journal that this federal guidance came later than the department was expecting.
Additionally, the Self-Employed Stimulus Payment, a state program launched last week to offer one-time grants of $750 to the first 2,000 self-employed workers who applied, was quickly depleted and plagued by technical issues.
A regional spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment.
Even with guidance and additional federal money for the program, Johnston said the department needs a few weeks to build a platform that won’t crash from higher-than-normal traffic from users.
“We know there’s a lot of people who will be seeking funds,” Johnston said.
Johnston declined to commit to a specific date for the program to be available, but he said it should be up and running by early May.
However, Byers, who saw the number of weddings he booked drop from up to 35 in a typical April to just two this year after counties stopped issuing wedding certificates, said he thinks the program is too little, too late. He criticized the state agency for deploying grant funding to the first self-employed workers who applied, rather than helping workers already in the system.
“They know they messed up, but they won’t admit it to anyone,” Byers said.