Left behind: Many Nevada workers may not qualify for unemployment benefits

By: - March 19, 2020 5:53 am
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The way Nevada law has been written, some contingent workers such as independent contractors, rideshare drivers or domestic workers are often excluded from employment protections. 

With thousands of Nevadans applying for unemployment benefits as a result of the health crisis, Barbara Hartzel, the Nevada state director with the domestic workers group Care in Action, fears many of those already vulnerable workers won’t receive unemployment benefits. 

“How are we going to have domestic workers and other contracted workers exempt from unemployment or sick benefits?” she said. “That reprehensible at this point.”

Nevada Current asked the governor’s office if they plan to expand unemployment benefits, in particular for domestic workers or other contracted employees, but they had not responded by the time of publication. 

Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation has been inundated with applicants hoping they can receive unemployment benefits. 

“Anyone who has been affected economically (by COVID-19) is not precluded from filing,” said Rosa Mendez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. “If you were working and received a wage, you can apply. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically eligible.” 

Ruben Garcia, the co-director of the UNLV Workplace Law Program, said employment eligibility in Nevada is based on the number of quarters a person has worked. However, it is only employees, not contractors, who are eligible. 

As of noon Wednesday, all non-essential businesses — restaurants, bars, nail salons, retail establishments, barbershops — were mandated by Gov. Steve Sisolak to close for 30 days, leaving thousands of full- and part-time employees without paychecks. 

Even with businesses shutting down and events canceling ahead of the mandated closures, DETR had seen an influx of applications. Mendez doesn’t know how many applicants have filed this week alone but said the state will release those numbers as soon as they are available. 

If a person receives unemployment benefits, one requirement is that they look for full-time and comparable work. That rule, Garcia noted, doesn’t take into consideration a crisis like what the state is facing. 

“You were laid off from work through executive action, but there is still a public health threat,” Garcia said. “Are workers expected to go back into the same hazardous situation?”

But the problem for many workers, from those contracted to work entertainment and trade show jobs to rideshare drivers, domestic workers, day laborers, hairstylists and countless others, is qualifying in the first place. 

Barbara Hartzell, who recently started organization efforts for an estimated 12,000 domestic workers in Nevada, said employee protections from the state have often excluded house cleaners, janitors and home health aids. 

Bliss Requa-Trautz, the director of Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center, explained that while some set up as independent businesses to offer their house cleaning services, others work for smaller companies that sometimes skirt responsibility. 

“You have companies who offer house cleaning services who misclassify their workers,” she said. 

On Monday, Hartzell asked the state how it plans to work with domestic workers who are out of work because of COVID-19. She said the governor’s office didn’t really answer her question.

“It’s as though they knew the question was coming but weren’t quite prepared for how to get it done,” Hartzell said. 

Because the state has had an influx of unemployment claims, Hartzell feels domestic workers or other contracted employees won’t be considered until it’s too late. 

Part of the reason many workers are left out of the unemployment process, Garcia explained, is because the state hasn’t tackled how some employers misclassify workers — when an employer intentionally or even unintentionally identifies workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

A nearly decade-old Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau analysis found that 31,000 Nevadans may be misclassified, which translated to an estimated $8.2 million annually in lost revenue to the unemployment trust fund.

A bill to create a task force to study the issue in 2011 passed the Legislature, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. 

Lawmakers passed a similar bill in 2019 to study the issue and present legislative recommendations, along with consequences for employers who misclassify. 

While lawsuits in several states have challenged whether gig workers should be classified as independent contractors, that debate has been slow to develop in Nevada. 

“One of the big debates (around the country) is what kind of protection and safety net is available for gig workers or contractors?” Garcia said. 

Requa-Trautz also called for expanding benefits to undocumented workers, who she estimates make up about 10 percent of the workforce. “They are the most vulnerable right now,” she said.

Sisolak told reporters last week that extending unemployment benefits was on the table but didn’t elaborate. 

While Garcia said it is likely Sisolak could take executive authority to expand benefits, there needs to be a more permanent fix by lawmakers in the next session.

Wednesday night, Sisolak took to Facebook to announce the state would waive the work search requirement and the 7-day wait period for unemployment insurance benefits.

For those who are eligible.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.