New Jersey continues to deal with record unemployment during the COVID-19 health crisis.

To date, more than 577,000 state residents have lost their jobs and are seeking unemployment benefits. During New Jersey 101.5's recent Town Hall broadcast on the economic impact of the pandemic and subsequent state shutdown of many businesses, most of your questions were directed at how to file for jobless benefits.

State Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo explained to our listeners the filing system was overwhelmed with requests. Operating on an antiquated mainframe computer system, it simply wasn’t designed to handle the volume of people seeking relief. He did, however, assure that everyone will get paid … eventually.  Improvements to the filing system are being made daily. 

Among the more complicated questions regarded so-called "gig" workers. These include everyone from Uber drivers to musicians. A large segment of New Jersey’s population falls outside traditional employment parameters. Many are independent contractors. Are they eligible for assistance? The short answer is yes.

Under new guidelines published by the NJ Department of Labor, ‘gig’ workers will generally qualify for relief if they can prove income based on tax returns.

If you are filing as a ‘gig’ worker or are self-employed, the Department of Labor recommends gathering two years of income-history documents, such as tax returns.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act created something called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance fund. It is designed to provide relief to both traditional and non-traditional workers.

The first step is to apply for state unemployment benefits as a “self-employed” worker. An illustrated step-by-step guide to the process can be found here.

As for who qualifies for PUA benefits, here is what the new guide says about that:

1. I’m self-employed, an independent contractor, a gig worker, or a platform worker. What do I get from the CARES Act?

If eligible, you can receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). These benefits can be retroactive for periods of unemployment that began after February 2, 2020.

2. How much is PUA?

PUA potentially provides the same amount as regular unemployment (60% of your average weekly salary, up to a maximum of $713 per week) for up to a total of 39 weeks. The PUA amount for the self-employed is calculated using prior year(s) tax returns if wages are not reported through wage records. The PUA minimum, for businesses operating at a loss or with insufficient income to qualify for benefits, is $231 per week. PUA benefits are considered taxable income. PUA recipients are also eligible for an extra $600 per week, also taxable. The $600 per week is retroactive to the week ending April 4, 2020, and ends the week of July 25, 2020.

3. How can I get PUA?

You must be negatively impacted by the coronavirus emergency to be eligible. See USDOL’s website, “Unemployment Insurance Relief During COVID-19 Outbreak.” You will have to certify that you are unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work for any of a list of coronavirus-related reasons.

NJDOL is working with the U.S. Department of Labor to develop the process to assess your application for this new federal program of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. In the meantime, applying for unemployment insurance is the necessary first step.

4. I went ahead and applied online for unemployment when I heard about the CARES Act and I haven’t heard back yet. What do I do?

If you received a confirmation number, you do not have to take any action - your claim will be reviewed by Unemployment Insurance staff. Our system is experiencing record levels of demand and all in-person services statewide are currently closed due to COVID-19. If your application was not successful, please keep trying, and see the application guide in #3 above. You will not lose a day’s benefits as all claims will be backdated to your first day of employment loss.

Long before the coronavirus crisis, state officials were concerned about the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. The DOL guide also addresses that:

6. I believe I’ve been misclassified as an independent contractor, and I lost my work due to coronavirus. What should I do?

The New Jersey Department of Labor is currently working with the U.S. Department of Labor to develop the process to assess your application for this new federal program of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. In the meantime, applying for unemployment insurance is the necessary first step. See #3 for our application guide. If you file now, Unemployment Insurance staff will first assess your application and your relationship to your employer. In addition, you may report your misclassification by emailing: misclass@dol.nj.gov.