After 19 years as a self-employed corporate communications consultant, Bruce Benidt knew the risks of being his own boss. No paid vacations, no sick leave, and, of course, no weekly unemployment benefits when work dried up.
Then the coronavirus came along. For the first time, Congress cleared the way for independent contractors and self-employed workers to apply for federal unemployment assistance. For Benidt, 69, who saw all but one client cancel upcoming jobs, the expansion arrived just in time.
“I would have never applied for unemployment had not the federal bill included gig workers, sole proprietors, independent contractors, that kind of jazz,” he said. “I think this is a wake-up call about the structure of the economy.”
In just two weeks last month, nearly 10 million laid-off Americans, an estimated 6 percent of the nation’s labor force, applied for unemployment benefits as their workplaces shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Florida claims for those two weeks totaled 301,312.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor will release statistics on how many more applied last week, with estimates of the next wave ranging up to 7 million new claims.
“The numbers are probably going to get worse before they get better,” said Bradley Kamp, an associate professor and chairman of the economics department at the University of South Florida. During the Great Recession a decade ago, Florida’s unemployment rate peaked at 11.3 percent with more than a million people unemployed. “We’re still a long way from that, but we’re about to get there is my guess, and we’ll probably even surpass that depending on how long we’re shut down.”
Like the two previous weeks, that tsunami of claims will include a sizable — but as-yet uncalculated — number of self-employed workers and independent contractors. Categories for those two groups can have multiple definitions, but generally independent contractors are counted among the self-employed. On Sunday, the U.S. Department of Labor expanded the self-employed category specifically to include gig economy workers like ride-share drivers.
Statewide, 1.16 million people are self-employed, out of a labor force of about 10 million, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey results for 2018, the most current available year. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area has almost 158,000 self-employed people, or about 10 percent of the area’s labor force.
In a separate report from 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there were 10.6 million independent contractors in the country, or about 6.7 percent of the labor force. The report did not break the numbers out by state, but using the same percentage as the country, Florida would have about 670,000 independent contractors, about 100,000 in the Tampa Bay area.
New coronavirus relief programs include $600 a week in federal unemployment insurance, but to get it, self-employed workers have to use the state system to apply. This week, Florida officials said they hadn’t set up a process to handle claims from self-employed workers and didn’t say when they would.
Florida’s malfunctioning claims website has caused an under-count of the number of people out of work.
Benidt, who lives in Port Richey, is one of them, having spent hours trying to file a claim on the state’s application website while his wife made more than 100 calls to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, all without success.
“I am spitting mad at (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis and (former Gov. Rick) Scott for ignoring three audits on this as they hew to their other social agendas,” he said. “It’s truly shocking. They’re not doing the job. They’re not governing.”
Jesse Latzman, 42, is an independent contractor who recycles precious metals from dental offices. His earnings come entirely from commissions, and he pays for his own medical insurance.
Many dentists closed their offices, which quickly put Latzman on the employment sidelines. He’s okay financially at the moment, but in a month or two he said he’ll “have to start sweating a few things.”
Given the scope of the crisis he thought it made sense for the federal government to extend benefits to independent contractors and self employed workers. But he knows how poorly Florida’s online application system worked during good times.
“Now they are scrambling to fix something that was already broken,” said Latzman, who lives north of Orlando. “The independent contractors, all the Uber drivers, all the people that work for themselves, are going to flood the system all over again.”
Rick Jorza works as a self-employed residential contractor, fixing people’s broken homes. He started his business in 2003. Even during the Great Recession he had enough work, much of it in the Tampa Bay area. Homeowners “always need stuff done,” he said.
But this time is different. No one wants contractors traipsing through their homes, coronavirus potentially in tow. He didn’t want to get sick, either.
“It was like a light switch," said Jorza, 56. "One day you’re busy, the next there’s no more work.”
He has spent a week trying to apply for benefits, his frustration building with each failed attempt. He scoffed at how the state had spent $77 million on such a faulty online benefits system.
“I can’t believe our state is that far behind technology-wise,” he said. “It’s a disgrace.”
To save money, Jorza moved back in with his ex-wife in Deltona. They had remained friends, so it’s not as awkward as it sounds. He also gets more time with his 20-year-old son.
“I’m getting by, but I can’t go six months or a year without work,” he said. “Something’s got to give.”
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