Coronavirus stimulus relief plea from self-employed to Washington: ‘We need help now’

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Pida Kongphouthone rarely sees a slowdown in the real estate market in his sun-drenched hometown of San Diego, where multiple bids drive up home prices. But the worldwide pandemic has upended his business practically overnight. 

Open houses have screeched to a halt during the state-imposed quarantine. No one wants strangers traipsing through their homes for showings anyway.

Deals, months in the making, are collapsing as the growing public health crisis rocking the nation’s economy sends the stock market into free fall and clouds the financial picture for already rattled buyers and sellers.

As his listings dry up, this real estate agent who relies on commissions for his income says he’s really starting to worry. Kongphouthone, 42, has elderly parents, a disabled sister and a 13-year-old son who live with and depend on him. Yet, he says, federal government is leaving independent contractors like him out of the stimulus package.

The self-employed – independent contractors, gig workers, temporary and part-time workers – number 57 million in the U.S., representing more than a third of the working population and driving $1 trillion in income, but have none of the benefits and protections that employees or even other small businesses do. 

Facing a shaky future as customers and sales vanish, they are frustrated that COVID-19 relief measures planned by Washington lawmakers don’t include them, even as economists forecast a recession that could wipe out millions of jobs and rival or top the sharp economic downturn from 2007 to 2009.

“We need help and we need help now. Washington really needs to focus on the people on Main Street, not just Wall Street. Boeing and the cruise lines, they will weather this storm. Everyday people are my concern,” Kongphouthone told USA TODAY. “We are not looking for handouts or for any freebies. We just want to be treated fairly because we do our fair share of creating jobs and helping the economy.” 

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Unemployment benefits, which date back to the New Deal, are the chief safety net in tumultuous periods of mass job shedding. But the system doesn’t cover individuals who are not classified as employees. And, in today’s gig economy, a growing number of workers are not categorized that way. Most other disaster relief efforts don’t apply to the self-employed either.

With the current stimulus package, the swelling ranks of the self-employed – fitness and yoga instructors, Uber and Lyft drivers, hair stylists and house cleaners, child care and in-home care workers – would be eligible to receive a payment of up to $1,200, more if they have kids. But that one-time payment won’t be enough to cover rent or mortgage payments, groceries or other basic necessities. 

Self-employed workers were struggling before COVID-19

Many self-employed workers were already operating on the economic margins before the outbreak, according to a new report from the Urban Institute that details a grim snapshot of the financial insecurity of the self-employed.

More than a quarter of self-employed workers reported having trouble affording food and 26% avoided seeking medical care because of the cost in 2019 amid a booming economy, the report found. 

A fifth of self-employed workers had problems paying family medical bills and 12% had a hard time paying utility bills. Twenty-two percent had no health insurance compared with 3% of salaried workers. Half of self-employed workers live in a household with someone who has a chronic condition or disability.

“They are starting out in a position where they are struggling, so the safety net that existed before the coronavirus outbreak was not really adequate to help them,” says Stephen Zuckerman, senior fellow and co-director of the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. “After the coronavirus outbreak, you are going to have still indeterminate losses of income for self-employed workers and a lot of other workers and that’s why we need to get money into people’s hands quickly to offset that loss of income.”

No one knows that better than JeFreda Brown, 43, a financial education consultant, instructor and speaker in Birmingham, Alabama. Many of her clients are self-employed, and so is she. As her clients feel the pinch, she does, too.

Brown is putting off media appearances and is moving much of her business online, such as remote tax preparation. She’s giving one-hour tutorials on how to invest in real estate over Zoom video conferences for $179, a steep discount from her $500 hourly rate. And she has started two online petitions to draw attention to “the people who are being left out.”

She says tornadoes that hit Alabama in 2011 made her realize how often state and federal policymakers overlook the self-employed during major disasters. From the research she’s done, the only assistance she currently qualifies for is a Small Business Administration disaster loan program.

“Just because we are a small business doesn’t automatically mean we are employers,” says Brown, CEO of Provision Financial Education. “I would love to see policymakers change the unemployment insurance laws to include self-employed individuals. I would like to see federal contracting add a set aside for solopreneurs.”

‘Nobody knows how long this will go on’

Vanessa Smith, 41, is a brand manager in the beauty industry, meaning she represents cosmetics and fragrance brands to retailers. 

The coronavirus slowly strangled her business. First, retailers instituted “no touch” policies. Then events were canceled. Now retailers are closed at least for a couple weeks. As an independent contractor, Smith’s not earning any money now and she’s worried how long it will take for her line of work to get back to normal, if it ever does.

“I’m lucky to have a safety net of some savings, but with all the uncertainty, it’s little comfort,” Smith said in an email. “Nobody knows how long this will go on or how it will impact the industry and change the nature of the business.”

She’s going to try for disaster unemployment assistance but says Washington should greenlight unemployment benefits and health coverage for the self-employed. While helpful, a $1,200 check from the government would barely cover a month’s rent in San Antonio, Texas where she lives. 

“It’s frustrating. I don’t know if the policymakers just didn’t consider how many people are freelance or self-employed,” she says.  It’s not just people like me. It’s Uber drivers, food delivery people, dog walkers, etc. The payroll tax cut they were floating would do us no good since we aren’t getting paid.”

Self-employed workers have already lost thousands of dollars during the pandemic

The Freelancers Union, which represents more than 500,000 workers nationwide, says more than 80% of the freelancers it surveyed say they’ve already lost thousands of dollars in wages to COVID-19, a number that will only rise as people cut back on goods and services. 

Kongphouthone says his business is already faltering as his clients grapple with coronavirus-related uncertainty, as one home seller’s crumbling plan impacts the next.

Restaurant owners, who listed their home with him a month ago and have been in escrow for three weeks, were on the verge of buying another home closer to family and in a better school district but are now having second thoughts. 

The seller of the home they were about to buy planned to move out of state for a lower cost of living and to be closer to family and didn’t need the sale proceeds to make the move, that is until his portfolio sank with the stock market. And the buyers of the home Kongphouthone’s clients are selling have experienced a similar sudden dip in their income, putting their plans in jeopardy, too.

Every lost home sale affects countless other businesses from house painters and house inspectors and from mortgage brokers and appraisers.

“It’s a vicious circle,” Kongphouthone says.

Self-employed push for unemployment benefits, deferred tax payments

Freelancers Union’s executive director Rafael Espinal is urging lawmakers to offer zero-interest loans, give freelancers access to emergency paid sick leave and family medical leave, institute disaster unemployment assistance and offer tax breaks and deferred tax payments.

Josh Silverman, CEO of online marketplace Etsy, made similar recommendations in an op-ed last week in Fortune magazine. Among them:

  • Establish an unemployment protection fund for the self-employed so they can receive benefits when their income declines due to the reduced demand for goods or services. 
  • Offer additional direct assistance to the self-employed to cover the cost of lost business, paid sick leave, health care costs and fixed expenses.
  • Defer taxes and debt and mortgage and credit card payments for the self-employed
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Silverman described the self-employed as “the most vulnerable to the current crisis.”

“If they get sick, they must take time off to care for a family member, or simply experience a decline in sales as customers tighten their budgets – they can’t call on a colleague to cover for them or rely on a steady paycheck,” he wrote. “They are truly going it alone, and they are falling through the cracks when it comes to COVID-19 relief efforts.” 

One of those self-employed workers is Rachel Coler Mulholland, a widowed hairstylist and makeup artist and mother of three who lives in a town of 5,000 residents in rural Minnesota, a 45-minute drive from the nearest Walmart. 

She kept a watchful eye on the spread of COVID-19 in Seattle and the worsening news coming out of Italy, but she didn’t become alarmed until the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in Minnesota.

With businesses and schools shuttering, Mulholland, 33, who is working on a master’s degree in clinical counseling, has cleared her schedule to stick closer to home. Her husband died in 2017 when she was seven months pregnant with their third child and she says she can scrape by on survivor benefits.

“I can keep the lights on and I won’t lose my house,” she says. But groceries and other basic necessities are already adding up. 

So Mulholland is imploring state policymakers to extend unemployment benefits to the self-employed. And she’s been speaking up on social media (“that’s how you protest during the time of social distancing,” she laughs), appealing to U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar not to forget the self-employed in relief legislation.

“We understand there are lots of moving parts and there are lots of people who need to be considered,” Mulholland says. “But please make sure we are on your mind.”

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