Claudia Friedlander: When will relief arrive? The self-employed need it. Now.
I earn my living as a voice teacher. The last day that I was able to welcome students to my New York studio was March 12, about two months ago. Virtually every professional singer on the planet is now unemployed; when the singers can’t work, those of us who serve them don’t get paid, either. But as a self-employed sole proprietor, I was not eligible for unemployment benefits.
So, when the CARES Act passed on March 27, I breathed a big sigh of relief. Provisions had been made for workers like me! All Americans would receive a stimulus check. PUA would enable me to collect unemployment. I could qualify for low interest loans that could potentially be forgiven.
I did all the paperwork – filed for unemployment, filed for an EIDL advance, and turned in a PPP pre-application form to the company my credit union planned to partner with for loan approval and distribution.
And then I waited.
I waited in vain for the stimulus money to appear. I heard from a few friends and family members who had received it as a direct deposit to their checking accounts. As it turns out, only those to whom the IRS had given a refund in tax year 2019 via direct deposit were able to receive their stimulus this way.
Fortunately, on April 1st the IRS announced that they were developing a mechanism to input our banking information for a direct deposit. But it took them until April 15th to launch the new mechanism; when I attempted to use it, I got an error message. I tried again the next day, with the same result.
Finally, on April 24th, nine days after it launched, I was able to provide the information they needed to transfer my stimulus. I waited for the money to show up, continuing to check the site for updates. On April 30th, there was an update… letting me know that they had dropped my stimulus check in the mail instead. I’m still waiting.
It took two weeks to reach the New York State Department of Labor on the phone to complete my unemployment application, after spending hours every day dialing into their system and navigating three minutes of prompts before getting kicked off the line over and over again. When I finally did get through, I was asked to upload some supporting documents to their website. I uploaded the documents. That was three weeks ago. My unemployment status is still “pending,” with no determination yet made regarding my eligibility and weekly benefit amount. A week and a half ago, $600 magically appeared in my checking account from the DOL, with no explanation. I’ve since heard from some people who received the same one-off $600 payment, people who didn’t, and one PUA applicant sent an incorrect weekly benefits amount who then received only four of an expected eleven weeks of unemployment pay – for non-consecutive weeks! I’m still waiting.
I waited so long for a response to my EIDL advance application that I figured I just wasn’t going to be approved – after all, they had made it clear that these loans would be issued on a first-come, first-served basis, so I must have made the application too late. Then I heard from a friend who had received an EIDL advance, direct deposited into her checking account, again with no explanation. Since she had submitted her application one day after I had submitted mine, I figured that I wasn’t going to be approved, not because my application was too late but perhaps because my credit rating wasn’t high enough. Then a week later, I received an email from the SBA: “You are receiving this message as a notification that your Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) application is currently being processed in the order it was received. You will receive an email notification when there is a change to your application status.” My friend received the same email the day after I did, even though she had already received her advance. I’m still waiting for that change to my application status.
After I submitted my PPP pre-application form, I learned that nearly all of the money that had been earmarked for small businesses had been gobbled up by not-so-small businesses, before I had even been able to fill out the application proper. My sister, a physician, did manage to submit a PPP application on behalf of her small medical practice; fortunately, it was one of the last ones to be approved before the money initially ran out, preventing a furlough of staff that provide critical medical services. But how many other small medical and other essential businesses had their PPP applications pre-empted by large hotel and cruise companies?
I then waited until the second batch of cash was approved for PPP loans, and this time I did manage to submit the full application. My bank told me that I had been approved, but that required SBA approval. I waited another two weeks. One morning last week I was dumbfounded to see that the amount I had been expecting had actually been deposited into my business checking account.
The amount of my PPP loan is roughly enough to cover my rent for a month and a half. At this point, it’s also all the money I have, and I have other expenses to meet – health insurance, utilities, groceries, therapy, hand sanitizer, and of course, toilet paper. I haven’t yet paid May rent, and now I’m getting friendly email reminders from my landlord while watching my personal and business checking balances dwindle just as they did last month.
Thousands of freelancers and sole proprietors are experiencing the financial insecurity that I have been living with, and our anxiety has been greatly exacerbated by the way state labor departments and the IRS have failed to manage our expectations as to when and whether relief will arrive.
We need more assistance, we need more information, and we need it now.
Claudia Friedlander, DMus, is an underemployed voice teacher, fitness expert and lecturer sheltering at home in New York City.