What the Coronavirus Relief Package Means for Freelancers

By Chris Erik Thomas

After more than 7,800 people lost their media jobs in 2019, being a freelancer in the industry during the coronavirus pandemic has the same energy as this man watching a tornado wreak havoc in a nearby field. “Well, did not expect this today,” he says with a sarcastic, incredulous laugh. Big Mood of 2020. 

Luckily, there is good news! The government passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act last week, which has two provisions that will help freelance writers out. There is a one-time payment for individuals and couples to provide relief, but the most helpful addition to the CARES Act is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. It’s designed specifically for part-time employees, freelancers, independent contractors, gig workers, and the self-employed who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for unemployment compensation but can’t work due to the coronavirus emergency. Thanks, Bernie Sanders.

As unemployment rises into the millions, the CARES Act comes at a critical point. Before you prepare for the headache of navigating overloaded unemployment websites, we put together a guide to help ease your stress and answer some key questions about the one-time relief payment and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. If you want to read the bill, you can access the full 880-page document here.

If you have any further questions, please reach out to [email protected] and we will try our best to answer them in future coverage.

INFORMATION ON ONE-TIME STIMULUS CHECKS

How much will the government send me as a one-time relief payment?

Individuals who earn $75,000 or less can get $1,200. If they make more than that, the amount will gradually decrease (a $5 reduction for every $100 in income above $75,000) before dropping off completely if your income is above $99,000.

For couples who make $150,000 or less, they can get $2,400. As with individuals, the amount will gradually decrease based on your income before dropping off entirely if you make more than $198,000 a year. An important caveat to all of this is that, if you have children under the age of 17, the amount goes up by $500 per child, regardless of how high your income is.

The big problem with the stimulus checks is that they’re based on your adjusted gross income for the last tax year you filed for, not your current economic situation. If you already did your 2019 taxes, it’ll pull from that year; if not, it’ll pull from 2018. Because freelancer income can vary wildly from year to year, you could potentially get less than $1,200 or $2,400 if your most recent tax return shows an income above $75,000 (as an individual) or $150,000 (as part of a couple). 

What if I’m listed as the “head of household”?

You’ll receive $1,200 if your adjusted gross income is less than $112,500.

How do I find my adjusted gross income?

On your 2018 taxes, it’ll be Line 7 on Form 1040. If you’ve done your 2019 taxes already, it’ll be Line 8b on Form 1040. 

Where will the one-time payment be sent? 

If you previously had tax return money sent directly to a bank account, the CARES Act stimulus money will be sent to the same account. If you’ve changed your account since your last tax return or if you don’t have a bank account listed, it will be mailed to whatever address the tax office has on file for you. It isn’t clear yet how this money will be sent to you if your address and bank account have changed, but one solution proposed thus far is to file your 2019 taxes ASAP so that your bank account and address are up-to-date.

How long will it take to get the money?

According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the money is “expected” to hit your bank account within the next three weeks if your tax refund was previously sent by direct deposit. If you don’t use direct deposit, a check will be sent by mail that could take weeks longer. But the reality is that this could take much longer. In the 2008 Great Recession, stimulus checks took about three months to reach people. 

What if I didn’t list direct deposit information on my 2018 taxes? Is it too late to change it?

Mnuchin has said a web-based application will allow people to switch from mail to direct deposit, but until the app is ready, the only way to get it sent by direct deposit right now is to do your 2019 taxes as quickly as possible and include direct deposit information.  

Do I have to pay tax on this one-time payment?

No. This income is considered a “credit,” which means it’s money you’ve already paid that the government is giving back to you. 

Is there a way to estimate how much money I’ll get?

Yes, you can head over to CNBC and use their calculator to estimate how much your check will be. 

INFORMATION ON PANDEMIC UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE

How do I file an unemployment insurance claim in my state?

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (ALF-CIO) has a state-by-state breakdown of the resources and benefits for workers impacted by the coronavirus. Go here first to find out how your state’s unemployment benefits process works.

What paperwork do I need to be eligible for benefits?

The documents needed to apply for unemployment benefits vary, but you can search for your state’s resources here to find out what you’ll need.

How much money will I be given through the program? 

You’ll be sent $600 per week, which is added on top of your state’s existing unemployment benefits program. These programs vary by state, but the benefit amount is typically calculated using a formula from the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program. This amount is based on previous income, which is taken from your most recent tax return.

If my state’s unemployment program doesn’t include freelancers, will I still get money at a state level?

This one is a tentative yes. Because the CARES Act introduced legislation that gave freelancers and the self-employed access to unemployment benefits at a federal level for the first time ever, it seems that the same rules apply at a state level during the crisis.

If I wasn’t making $600 per week as a freelancer, will my benefits be cut? 

Nope! If you qualify for the unemployment program, you’ll get $600 per week regardless of what your previous income was before coronavirus

Do unemployment benefits count as taxable income?

Yes. If you are going to receive unemployment compensation through this program, you’ll be sent Form 1099-G, which details the amount you’re paid. Per the IRS website, any unemployment compensation received must be included in your income.

If I do my taxes quarterly, do I include this in my quarterly tax statements?

Yes, and congrats, you’re one step ahead. Unemployment compensation sometimes requires making quarterly estimated tax payments already

Can I apply now while I’m finishing up work I’ve already started, or do I have to wait until all of my work dries up? 

Apply now! Under the normal unemployment benefits program, the “waiting period” varies; some require a one-week waiting period from when you become unemployed to when you can start to collect benefits, but the Act is allowing states to eliminate that requirement. The sooner you apply, the sooner you will start the process.

If you get 1099 forms from clients, do they count as your employer?

No. Under this bill, 1099 workers are able to get unemployment benefits for the first time. 

How long will the unemployment benefits last?

The bill has added an extra 13 weeks of benefits to however many weeks your state’s unemployment laws usually allow. For most states, you can get up to 26 weeks of unemployment, but it’s important to check how many weeks your state specifically allows.

For those who also fall into the “good at writing but mathematically challenged” camp, 26 weeks + 13 extra weeks = 7 months and 1 week

What if my income doesn’t return to normal by the end of this period?

After 39 weeks, an Extended Benefits program can be triggered to allow an additional 13 to 20 weeks of compensation. According to the US Department of Labor, to qualify you must “have exhausted regular unemployment insurance benefits during periods of high unemployment,” but it’s important to note: “Not everyone who qualified for regular benefits qualifies for Extended Benefits. The State agency will advise you of your eligibility for Extended Benefits.”

I’m making enough to support myself still but I’d like to apply for unemployment. What happens if I tell a few lies to get benefits?

Nobody knows how long the coronavirus pandemic will last, but for now, if you’re making enough money to be okay, lying to get benefits takes them away from those who need them immediately. 

Also, if you misrepresent your situation and get caught, federal law states that you’ll be cut off from any future pandemic unemployment compensation and could get fined or even face jail time. So unless a re-enactment of Orange Is the New Black is on your social distancing to-do list, do not lie to get unemployment benefits

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