Will Nevada be one of the last states to get benefits to gig workers?

If Sisolak knows anything about Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, he should say so

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Gov. Steve Sisolak announcing the closure of Nevada casinos, bars, and other businesses March 17. (KLAS-TV video feed screen shot)

Tens of thousands of Nevadans are out of work and they can’t even apply for unemployment yet.

They’re being told to wait, not to apply now. If they do file an application now, the computer system will just spit it back out, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabiliation (DETR), which administers the state unemployment claims system.

As of now, the most tangible guidance the state is offering gig workers, part-timers, the self-employed, and workers classified as independent contractors who are out of work and money through no fault of their own is a couple sentences on the Frequently Asked Questions page of DETR’s website: “If you are self-employed, 1099, or a gig worker, we ask that you DO NOT attempt to file for unemployment insurance benefits at this time. We ask that you monitor updated information at the DETR COVID-19 Information for Claimants and Employers page for future instructions.”

The page people are supposed to monitor says this about Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the CARES Act provision which establishes benefits for IRS form 1099 (gig, etc.) workers:

Status: Federal guidance received 04/05/20. Researching vendors to provide services and system programming changes to implement. Call center selected 04/09/20. Last updated 04/10/20

A couple weeks ago, in mid-April, a DETR official appearing on YouTube with the governor said gig workers may be able to apply a couple weeks from now, in mid-May. 

And that’s more or less the sum total of what we know about PUA benefits in Nevada.

Suggestion: Gov. Steve Sisolak should take a break from his busy schedule of gushing on national TV shows about how masterfully he has handled the COVID-19 crisis, get on his beloved YouTube channel, and tell those workers what the hell is going on.

Assuming he knows.

Communication breakdown

To recap: Gig workers, independent contractors, the self-employed, and other workers who typically report income using IRS 1099 forms instead of W-2s traditionally have never qualified for the state’s unemployment insurance program. That program is funded by employer contributions to the system, and those workers don’t have employers who have been paying into it on their behalf. 

The CARES Act extended unemployment benefits to many of those workers, which in turn — and crucially — makes them eligible for the $600 a week federal benefit on top of whatever the state pays. (In Nevada the maximum state benefit is $469 a week).

But unemployment benefits, even those supplemented or paid by the federal government under the CARES Act’s PUA provisions, are administered by state unemployment insurance departments. That means states have to revise their unemployment eligibility requirements to accept IRS 1099 workers, and also adopt eligibility criteria outlined in the CARES Act.

So has Nevada done that part yet?

I asked DETR Wednesday. The unemployment office isn’t much more responsive to the press than it is to people trying get claims sorted. In other words, no response.

It would be better to hear an explanation from Sisolak anyway. He should at least explain if Nevada has officially revised state unemployment rules to include gig workers, and if not, why not.

The CARES Act (section 2021) details the criteria for eligibility, so that part’s a cut and paste job.

But it’s more complicated than that, since the state has to figure out how to assess income from an individual’s stack of 1099s instead of one or two W2s, which is what the unemployment system is set up to understand. It’s sort of setting up a whole new system.

One could see how that could intimidate a department that has enough trouble administering a surge of claims from the 350,000 or so people who have filed under the existing rules.

Maybe it has intimidated Sisolak too. And rightly so. Revising the unemployment system so it can handle whole new categories of working Nevadans does sound like a big, daunting task. Smiling for the cameras while answering softball questions lobbed by some cheery national TV personality is probably a lot more fun.

But gig workers, independent contractors, the self-employed and other workers whose incomes can be precarious to begin with are being told they can’t file yet so don’t even try, amid a vacuum where detailed information should be, and next to zero acknowledgment from elected officials (as seen on TV) that they or their situation even exists. 

Earlier this week Sisolak’s office announced DETR is getting a new director. Characteristically of this administration during the pandemic, the statement provided no explanation, and requests for one from the governor’s office were ignored.

I have no idea if replacing outgoing director Tiffany Tyler-Garner will make DETR quicker or more efficient. But DETR’s failure to communicate clearly and in a timely manner with gig workers can’t and shouldn’t be laid solely at her feet. DETR is an executive branch agency, and Sisolak is the head executive.

The Sisolak administration’s wholesale communications failure on gig worker unemployment benefits is especially weird since some of the finest public relations and advertising professionals — in a state that prides itself on PR/ad mad skills — are advising him amid the crisis.

What? You thought all his decisions are dictated by his medical response team? He’s also got a branding response team.  If I were a cynical person I’d suggest one reason the state has made only a feeble effort to tell gig workers what’s going on is it’s hard for people who have Sisolak’s ear to see how they or their clients might make money from it, you know, going forward.

‘Nevada United.’ Oh really?

There is no good hard count of how many gig and “1099” workers are in Nevada or any other state.

People who study the subject suggest one of the best indicators might be a Census Bureau data series on “nonemployer statistics” of businesses, with particular attention to the “independent proprietors” designation. For instance, you can look in the transportation category, and in Nevada in 2017 (the most recent year in the data) there were 27,369 total “establishments,” of which 26,473 were “independent proprietors.” The experts suggest that’s your rideshare drivers right there.

But the 1099 workforce, in an economy where employers have been moving further away from full-time employment and closer to outsourced, less expensive labor, is hardly confined to Uber and Lyft drivers. It includes everything from hairstylists to people who work conventions and trade shows. Many in the latter group were among the first Nevadans to lose jobs and have been without work and income the longest.

As for those “independent proprietors,” in 2017, there were more than 194,000 them in Nevada, according to the census stats.

That doesn’t mean all of them will be filing for unemployment when the state gets around to letting them. I think. Some of them might be filing and getting (fingers crossed) SBA help. And some of them might still be working. I hope.

But whatever the number, it’s a lot of people that the state of Nevada and it’s minor celebrity of a governor have been very uninterested in talking about. They deserve a clear and forthright explanation. It’s long overdue.

Sisolak was scheduled Thursday to announce his lovingly titled “Nevada United: Roadmap to Recovery” plan for beginning to reopen the state.

Also as of Thursday, nearly half the states in the country had begun accepting and processing PUA claims. Earlier this week California and Oregon were among the most recent to join the club. Utah’s PUA system has been up and running for a couple weeks.

Sisolak has been touting Thursday’s announcement with fanfare — enthusiastic tweets, the aforementioned teases on national TV shows, hyped if anticlimactic announcements about extending the stay at home rules but very lightly easing rules on some businesses, etc.

It would be nice if he also announced Thursday that Nevada has a firm date when gig workers, independent contractors and the like can file for unemployment, with some explanation of how the process will work and what people will need to do.

A truly united Nevada, er, “Nevada United,” would not blithely leave tens of thousands of Nevadans in the dark.

Oh by the way, nothing of the above should be construed in any way to suggest Sisolak has been wrong about social distancing and shutting down businesses.  You people gathering in the streets for Trump campaign rallies disguised as “open Nevada” protests are endangering each other, the community, and the elderly parent you look in on.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.