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A Freelancer's Guide to Unemployment Benefits—and Other Financial Help

Freelance dancers got some good news last week: Under the CARES Act, a coronavirus response package, freelancers and self-employed people will qualify for unemployment benefits.

However, since unemployment is normally reserved for W2 employees only, the exact workings of the program are still being ironed out. Here are your biggest questions about unemployment and other financial help for freelance dancers, answered.


What about that $1,200 check?

As you may have heard, one of the promises of the CARES Act is a one-time payment of $1,200 to every taxpayer making under $75,000 per year, or $2,400 for couples making $150,000 or less per year, plus $500 for every child. If your income is above those thresholds, the payments decrease gradually and phase out entirely if you make more than $99,000 as an individual or $198,000 for couples.

If you've already filed a tax return for 2019, the payment will be based on your 2019 adjusted gross income. If you haven't filed for 2019, don't worry, the IRS will base the payment on your 2018 return. If you haven't filed tax returns for 2018 or 2019, file now for 2019 to make sure you get your payment. The IRS will either mail you a check, or if you listed electronic deposit information on your last tax return, put the money directly into your account.

Is that different from unemployment?

Yes! Under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, freelancers and self-employed people will qualify for unemployment benefits separate from the $1200 rebate check. This chart from the New York State Department of Labor can help you understand broadly whether you qualify, but you should also check with your own state.

Under PUA, you will be given $600 per week on top of whatever your state determines your unemployment payment should be. Usually, unemployment is about half a person's normal salary, but since states aren't used to determining unemployment benefits for freelancers, the amount you are given could vary—but you'll get that $600 on top no matter what.

PUA also adds an extra 13 weeks to however long your state normally offers unemployment. In New York, for example, the normal period is 26 weeks, so under PUA, freelancers can get 39 weeks of benefits. Find information about your state here.

How do I apply for unemployment?

You'll need to go through your state's unemployment benefits program. You can find information about how to apply in your state here.

What information will I need?

This one is a bit tricky. If you have any jobs where you are paid as an employee on a W2, your state's labor department will already have those records. Normally, they use those to determine unemployment payments. But states aren't used to calculating unemployment for freelancers and are figuring things out as they go. A representative for my own state's Department of Labor, in New York, couldn't tell me exactly what documentation freelancers will need. However, they did add this guidance to their website today to help freelancers fill out their applications. Most likely, you'll need to submit your tax returns, so make sure you have your last few handy. Again, file 2019 taxes right away if you haven't filed for a few years.

There are reports of long call wait times and website crashes, so have all your information ready to go. This also includes basic personal information like your social security number, date of birth, address and some form of state-issued ID, as well as detailed information about your lost work.

What if unemployment isn't enough to pay my bills?

This tool from AFL-CIO lists resources for workers in every state, including information about rent assistance programs and health insurance enrollment. For the uninsured, health exchanges in some states have reopened so you can find a plan, and if you have lost enough income, you may now qualify for Medicaid.

The Actors Fund has a nationwide relief program for performing artists. A coalition of arts funders recently launched the Artist Relief fund providing unrestricted $5000 grants to those who demonstrate the most need.

Dancers in New York City can also apply for the Dance/NYC Coronavirus Dance Relief Fund. Applications for March are closed, but April applications open on the 10th. Dancers whose applications are approved will receive individual grants of $500 within about two weeks of applying. There will be a May application round as well, and dancers who have received funds may reapply. Dance/NYC also still encourages dancers to complete its Coronavirus Impact Survey. Data from that survey is published every week, and is a useful tool for artists to lobby their elected officials for additional help.

According to Dance/NYC executive director Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, Dance/NYC communicated closely with the community organizers behind the NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund and the Dance Union's NYC Dancers Relief Fund. Though applications for both of those funds are currently paused, they should reopen, so keep an eye out.

This document contains a list of artist relief funds across the country, including tips about the application processes.

Dance Artists National Collective has compiled a list of resources and holds weekly community response meetings via Zoom for freelance dancers to share resources and experiences. (Full disclosure: I am a DANC member.)

Keep documenting your needs, because further relief programs are on the way. "I want for folks not to lose hope," says Duque Cifuentes. "Maybe they won't get the support they request right away, but I want them to know that there are so many artists and organizations and activists that are fighting so hard to make sure that individual artists are not forgotten.

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