Sarah Schilling: My Freelance Unemployment Disaster
It’s 2pm on March 12, 2020. Sitting in my hotel room overlooking San Francisco’s Japantown, I put down my Panang curry to answer the phone. It was the artistic director of an organization, asking for my thoughts on an upcoming Telemann festival in Germany. After I hang up, I munch on my take-out while checking emails. The gig I’m in town for has been cancelled after one rehearsal. Later that day, the trip to Germany is cancelled. In the coming weeks, I watch as my entire spring and summer of performances, festivals, and teaching disappear until the next performance on my calendar is for a hold in late November. Fast-forward to June 6, pacing around my apartment, I’m told by a manager at Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) that I will not receive benefits for the months I’ve been out of work.
What does that mean? How did we get here? How can I—and other people in my situation—find a way forward?
I resolve to forge ahead looking for additional income sources. Initially, my approach is haphazard—in the weeks immediately following my return home to Virginia, I try to convince my students to take lessons online and sign up for as many shifts as possible at my part-time job. I look for other sources of income, too: I ramp up my reed-making business and I look into ways to monetize digital content. Since I normally make most of my income as a self-employed independent contractor (through 1099s and smaller contracts), I assume that I won’t be eligible for traditional unemployment benefits.
Then, on March 27, the CARES Act passed, and with it, a provision for the self-employed to be eligible for benefits called “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” (PUA). I rush to the Virginia Employment Commission’s website to apply. It crashes. I try another browser. I call VEC to start an application. The system hangs up on me time and time again before I’m able to get through the automated menu to be put on hold or get a callback. Rinse and repeat for hours a day for the next two weeks. I’m finally able to reach a VEC employee on the phone for the first time the week of April 20. I share information about my situation, explaining that while I have a couple of W2 wage jobs, most of my income comes through contract work. I tell the representative that last year, I worked for 26 organizations in 14 states and the District of Columbia. This was not the right tactic, even though it was the truth, because when I went to file my weekly claim for benefits a few days later, there was no case associated with my social security number. Still, I reacquaint myself with the major points in the CARES Act and reassure myself that I am indeed entitled to these benefits. (And if you’re a W2 and 1099 wage earner, you are, too.)
At this point, I reached out to my state and federal representatives: US Senator Tim Kaine, US Senator Mark Warner, Representative Abigail Spanberger, State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, and State Delegate Schuyler Van Valkenburg. With a new federal law impacting the running of a state agency, I wasn’t sure where to turn. I mostly heard back with general information. Senator Dunnavant’s office quickly shared updates about the VEC website regarding the PUA process and application. Representative Spanberger’s office replied by phone and later sent a 13-page packet titled “Individual Financial Assistance: Rebates and Unemployment Benefits,” which provided information about the CARES Act and applying for assistance during this time.
On April 30, I attended a seminar hosted by UIA Talent Agency Managing Director Aaron Sanko, where I learned more about how to navigate the unemployment system. I gathered the recommended information and applied again through the VEC website for my husband and myself. In part, this included: finishing our 2019 federal taxes early and gathering earned income, contract information, and cancelled contracts for spring 2020.
The week of May 10, I received a determination letter stating that I was eligible for $72/week in unemployment plus $600 per week under the CARES Act, through July 31, 2020. The determination was so low since it only took into account my 2019 W2 income, ignoring self-employment, which was over 80% of my income in 2019. I accepted this, looking forward to at least receiving the $672/week from May through July, and went about the business of filing weekly certifications, indicating my small amount of work for my part-time employer and self-employment. Despite the fact I wasn’t deriving any unemployment benefits from this work, I was still required to certify my self-employment income.
After weeks of filing certifications and not receiving benefits, I was concerned. Representative Spaberger’s office was able to put me in touch with a manager at VEC. The last time I spoke with him was on June 6, when he told me that earning more than $72 at my part-time job made me ineligible for receiving benefits—both the $72 and the $600—for all the weeks I had done that. In other words, all the weeks of scraping, saving, and asking for more hours at work and hustling for more self-employment—making $100-$300 a week, I would have earned more, at least through July, doing nothing.
I have the privilege of time and resources to fight for my unemployment benefits. I have my own laptop, high-speed internet, and an apartment. My husband received PUA and we have savings, all facilitating my work on this problem.
Since I first started speaking out on this issue, I’ve heard from dozens of colleagues in and beyond Virginia and the United States. Some have offered new strategies and resources. We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift of performing arts—where we’ll find ways to sing, act, and dance like never before—all while fighting for fair compensation.
I fear for my colleagues though without my privilege, those who have no emergency fund, no side-gig, or part-time job. Even if they received their $600/week PUA benefits, what will happen to them in August when those benefits disappear?
Sarah Huebsch Schilling is an underemployed historical performance practitioner and part-time classical radio host sheltering at home in Richmond, Virginia.