Bills come due for gig workers as they wait for federal help to kick in

Some drivers for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are among those struggling to make a living during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, freelancers like rideshare drivers will be eligible for unemployment benefits. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Delivering groceries to the tops of Atlanta high-rises was not Jennifer Headley’s preferred way to bring in money Monday afternoon, but she said the eviction notice posted to her door left her without much choice.

Headley, who lives in Decatur, stopped driving for Lyft in early March, when the new coronavirus began shutting down large gatherings. She lives with her adult son, who has medical conditions which place him more at risk of infection.

She’s trying to figure out whether a government stimulus, newly-available unemployment benefits and a new gig will be enough to keep the roof over their heads.

Jennifer Headley. Contributed

Headley now drives for Instacart, which means she does not have to share her car with potentially ill passengers, but she’s also taking home about half the pay she used to. And she’s got company. In one survey, more than 80% of rideshare drivers report demand drying up as Americans shelter in place.

“All of us are out here suffering,” Headley said. “Some of these Lyft and Uber drivers have been forced to continue to keep driving, even with coronavirus,” Headley said. “You know we’re not going to get hazard pay.”

For the first time, gig workers like Headley, as well as those who are self-employed, independent contractors and those with limited work histories are eligible for unemployment benefits, under a provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed by President Donald Trump last month.

The Georgia Labor Department expects to launch a modified application incorporating the new provisions this week. Once applications are received, they will take several weeks to process. Gig workers who have already filed a claim do not need to refile, but they should watch for an email requesting additional information.

“We are on the forefront of this economic effort to provide relief to a brand-new group of Georgians who have never received unemployment benefits before,” Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. “Our team is working to make sure we can offer assistance as soon as possible to those in need while also establishing a system that (is) in compliance with federal law.”

Headley said she and her husband applied for unemployment four weeks ago but have yet to hear back. Meanwhile, her landlord is threatening her family and others in her complex with eviction if their rents aren’t paid.

Headley said she thinks she’ll be able to swing this month’s rent — if unemployment benefits come through in time, but she also has to cover a $250 late fee.

Rideshare drivers make up a large and visible portion of the gig economy, and they’ve been especially hard hit by this crisis, said Austin Gates, co-founder of advocacy group Rideshare Drivers United Georgia.

Over half of Georgia’s rideshare drivers are behind the wheel for 40 hours a week or more and need their fares to make ends meet, Gates said.

“There’s definitely a large block of folks that are retired and just do it for fun or for some extra money, but the vast majority of these people, this is their only source of income, and they need this to support children and to pay bills.”

Rideshare drivers are also more likely to have precarious housing such as extended-stay hotels or short-term rental units, Gates said.

“You have a massive decrease in ridership, especially as events and other things have been canceled and flights are being canceled and there’s not as many people traveling or going out.”

Gates’ group pushed for unemployment benefits to include gig workers since it started a year ago, he said. Now, the most important thing is how quickly the benefits reach the people who need them.

“What we need is for this to be implemented as quickly as possible, and we need the applications to be processed as quickly as possible,” he said. “There has already been a two-week delay since the CARES Act was passed and signed into law, and in those two weeks, people have lost their homes, people are going hungry, so this needs to be done quickly.”

A processing time of several weeks  will be impressive given the scope of the work to be done, according to Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center Director Rajeev Dhawan.

“Really, this is totally unprecedented,” he said. “If they don’t even have records for you, what work you do, how can they give you unemployment insurance? They have to verify what you are making. It’s going to take some time. … This is like turning on a dime. … A typical customer thinks this is like a drive-through window for fast food. ‘I placed my order, where is it?’ People need to stop thinking like that.”

Headley said waiting for the state to implement the new process is beyond frustrating. She’s afraid if she doesn’t get help, she and her family will be out of a home.

“It makes you angry because they know millions and millions of people right now are out of work, and they’ve done the bare minimum. I feel like we’re at the bare minimum,” Headley said. “They have not done nearly enough to help anybody.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.