Navigating Unemployment for Theatre Artists: Pandemic Extension Edition

 

This pandemic has brought our industry to a crippling halt. If you’re reading this as someone in the entertainment field, you’ve likely already filed for unemployment. I wrote a post last year that literally went “viral” along with COVID19, as I offered the link to various online resources for peers. That post was about knowing what to do as you prepared to file for regular unemployment (written in early 2019). I didn’t actually write the “part two” I planned, on how to actually file, let alone keep up your weekly/bi-weekly claims. I still plan to do that, and have also written a chapter towards a future stage management book, with my article focusing on navigating unemployment. [This summer the chapter was re-written to make some hopefully-not-too-outdated-for-the-future 2020 edits.] That said, we’re starting to hit a new phase of unemployment for many of us – extended unemployment benefits. I’ll help provide what guidance I can, but please refer to your own state and government guidelines for absolute truths.

Acronyms broken down  |  What if you’re stuck trying to GET unemployment payments to begin with?  | Filing for PEUC (extended federal)  |  Tips

Some acronyms and categories broken down

  • Unemployment Insurance (UI)
    • This refers to standard unemployment benefits based on working on W2s for the previous 12-18 months (read my previous post for more on that)
    • It is generally for 26 weeks (depending on the state as well as your past earnings), and a percentage of what you previously earned
    • Once you file, you recertify that you are still unemployed (some states every two weeks, some every week) to ask for your payment; if you worked during that time period (full time or partial), you may get reduced (or zero) benefits for that period, but can keep the claim open (or re-open it) [Can you tell it varies for every state? So many parantheses!]
    • Your claim is active for a full year; if you run out of the money, you cannot start a new claim during that period – no, not even in another state, you should have included those wages in your first try
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)
    • This was created during the CARES Act, to assist gig workers and others who worked 1099 as well, and whose income was affected by COVID19
    • In general, PUA provides up to 39 weeks [UPDATE 9/5 - up to 46 weeks now] of unemployment benefits to individuals not eligible for regular unemployment compensation or extended benefits, including those who have exhausted all rights to such benefits
    • Some people were in a tricky mid-between area, where they barely made enough for UI, and therefore couldn’t get PUA for all their earnings; I’ve heard anecdotally there were also issues if you worked in more than one state
    • In many (all?) states, you recertify every week to ask for your payment
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)
    • Also created during the CARES Act, this is what many of us are now working on or about to switch to, as it extends unemployment benefits* beyond the original length [*UPDATE 9/11: Regular unemployment, not PUA]
    • This is currently in effect for up to 13 weeks, ending no later than December 31, 2020; at the same amount per week as your original claim
    • You DO need to apply for this, it is not automatic (how-to suggestions below, approximately 2/3 through the blog post)
    • UPDATE 9/5 - This is only for standard UI, not those on PUA, per this article
  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) Program
    • This was the extra $600 that those who were receiving unemployment (UI and PUA) were able to receive for a while, also part of the CARES Act
    • So many people never read the original wording, so were confused on dates, etc.; it started based on the date your state enacted it (Coloradans got an extra week compared to New York, for instance), and ended on either July 25 or 26, depending on location
    • This was NOT retroactive if you hadn’t filed for unemployment yet by the start date; it was also an automatic process once you were in the system
  • Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) Program
    • This is the “$400” Trump enacted when no further legislation had happened
    • $300 is federal money taken from FEMA funds, and $100 is now an optional amount from the states
    • You must be making $100 on unemployment already, and that can now count as part of the $400; as of August 28th, five states said they would contribute the $100 as well (Vermont and Kansas if approved, along with Montana, Virginia and Kentucky)
    • UPDATE 9/7: According to the official guidelines, "Claimants will be required to self-certify that they are unemployed or partially unemployed due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the initial unemployment insurance claims process and or required weekly recertifications."
    • It is enacted whenever a state asks for it and is approved, and then is ready to disperse; Colorado has stated it may be about mid-September until it will be dispersed while they reprogram their system; South Dakota will not be asking for it; as of this writing, five states have already started payments
    • It is for the weeks from right after the FPUC ended (July 26 or 27), until the funds run out or Congress enacts new legislation; UPDATE 9/12 - the funds are now depleted and will total six weeks for all states, which at this point would all be retroactive, ending the week ending September 5th or 6th, depending on the state.
    • UPDATE 9/5 - Colorado has asked for a 5th week of money, so is for July 26 to August 22 in that state; (UPDATE 9/12: it's assumed the state will ask for the 6th week, too)
    • UPDATE 9/10 - The funds are officially depleted according to FEMA, and will be for six weeks maximum for every state.
    • UPDATES 9/5,9/11, 9/12: Check for your own state whether you need to request this - Colorado has added a new LWA question to verify as of September 11 or 12; Oregon, New York, and Tennessee sent an email to applicants if it wasn't already noted in their original claims (here's more on Oregon); Arizona does not ask currently, Missouri it appears you need to check that yes your unemployment is due to COVID, for instance; it may be based on your original filing answering the same question; PUA applicants have already answered this in their ability to get PUA in the first place; As of 9/12, check for any other state updates that I know about on this page dedicated to LWA.
    • UPDATE 9/7: There is an online LWA tracker listing the number of weeks states have been requested, and estimated paydates.
  • State Extended Benefits (SEB)

  • UPDATE 9/5: Extended Benefits (EB) have triggered on in 48 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Check to see if your state is included, and search for "SEB" in your state on how to obtain it
  • Many Coloradans are unaware that we hit a threshold level (13 week average of 6% unemployment) that will give an additional extension; here is a press release on the state website
  • This provides up to 13 weeks of state extended unemployment benefits (SEB) for those Coloradans who exhaust both their allotted 26 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits as well as the additional 13 weeks provided by the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensations (PEUC) program.
  • The press release also states, “[Colorado] Claimants do not have to take any action to access the state extended benefits. The Division of Unemployment Insurance will review claims to determine SEB eligibility and notify claimants accordingly.”
  • UPDATE 9/11 - This is only for those who exhausted regular UI and PEUC, not PUA
  • UPDATE 10/26 - I can tell you this is indeed an automatic process; there is no applying for it. For me, it kicked in within days.

UPDATE 9/5: here's a link to New York's breakdown of unemployment.

What if you’re stuck trying to GET unemployment payments to begin with?

I know one issue that has come up is UI fraud, so they’re taking more time to verify people. You may be asked to take a selfie with your id, for instance.

If you are a member of Actors’ Equity Association, and are having issues getting through for answers or have questions, Megan Benjamin may be able to assist you. Log in to the member portal and visit the Unemployment Benefits During the Coronavirus Pandemic post for additional information.

If you are in the unemployment system, and cannot get through to a human, sometimes a fax is the most effective form of communication. Don’t have a fax machine? No problem. You can use an online fax service – I’ve  been using FaxZero myself. You scan your items (PDF works best) and upload them to their website. Pay attention to any page limits both per transaction and per day; if you need to split it up, put that it’s “Transmission 1 of 2” in the comment section as needed. Be sure to include any pertinent info you would if you were filling out one of their forms, like your SSN, and sign the PDF if needed, etc., to head off any other delays. A few states are starting to give out email addresses, which of course is more fitting with the times, but fax still seems to get through, especially if you need to send in your proof of wages.

Contacting one of your government representatives may be a way to break through the red tape.

Screenshot of the home screen for Colorado Unemployment's Online System
Screenshot from my home page when I log in for my unemployment benefits
For Colorado specifically, here are some additional resources:

They now have a dedicated email to contact: cdle_pr@state.co.us

The phone number for regular unemployment (UI) is 303-318-9000; it is now an automated-only system and if the bot can’t answer you, you are given the option for a call back. Unfortunately, that date may be more than a month in the future, unless you happen to call in just after someone has canceled theirs. That said, I received my call just 18 minutes into my two-hour time frame. If you schedule a Call Back but then no longer need it, please call back this same number, so that someone else may take that appointment. You can also go to the DOL homepage, then type “Cancel my call back” in the Chat Bot and follow instructions there.

The phone number for PUA-only (gig workers) is 303-536-5615. This number is often easier to get through – however, they have NO way to “talk” to the UI system.

Extra special insider info: If you speak Spanish, I’m told that line goes through much quicker….

There is a glitch regarding workforce setup for Coloradans. If you've received a message in the mail telling you that you are no longer job-attached and must register for Colorado Workforce, you have more to do than just make sure that you are registered. While logged into your Connecting Colorado account (Colorado Workforce), you have to go to the left bar and click Personal Information, then scroll down and find Unemployment Insurance Status. Select "Recently Filed Unemployment Insurance Claim" (even though it probably wasn't that recent). This is what triggers Colorado Workforce to tell Unemployment that you are registered. It may or may not automatically tell them that you did it. If this is what is holding up your benefits, then you should get paid what you are owed in three business days. Remember you are still responsible for five work-search contacts per week. (Thank you Sharon Kay White, Stephen Day, and Charles Turner for sharing this info variously. My own account was set up correctly, but we had to fix this on my husband’s.)

UPDATE 9/6 - Article for Coloradans - "What’s Working: The situation with PUA benefits. Plus, why action is needed to get extra payments.: Getting into the nitty-gritty of Colorado’s unemployment system takes us deeper into holds on PUA payouts, extended benefits and fraud."

UPDATE 9/11 - Quite a few people on PUA in Colorado have suddenly gotten a re-determination down to the minimum of $223, and now owe backpayment to the state for the difference. The state is trying to cut down on fraud claims and this may be part of that. There is also anecdotal information you may need to upload 2019 tax information instead of 2018 to fix it. No one is really sure at the moment, but if you are one who were caught by this, you're not alone.

Join a dedicated Facebook group or page for insight - but I beg you, please do a SEARCH before asking a question. At least if you read this, you won’t ask when we’re going to see the $400 in Colorado, right?

  1. Colorado PEUC/PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) Q&A Facebook group – to prevent fraud, they are asking some Colorado-specific questions to enter. Note, one answer is regarding the longest street in the Denver area. If you do post a question, you are asked to specify if you mean regular UI or PUA. A member named ‎Ross Ian Ahlvin works in the actual department and is trying to pass along information – look for his posts for the most accurate information. He also shared the updated email address to use (repeated here, cdle_pr@state.co.us).
  2. CO Unemployment Updates Facebook group – this was not set up by anyone working in the government, just people going through some of the same issues as you.
  3. The Colorado Dept. of Labor & Employment Facebook page can have some useful information.

UPDATE 9/15 - If you still are confused whether you're on PUA or another, I made a visual reference for you, as they have different login screens and different website addresses.

What if you’ve run out of the first round, and are ready to file for PEUC?

You must wait until your funds are completely exhausted and are listed as $0 in your account balance. Don’t try calling the week before. This may mean, if you worked a partial week at any point, that you will have a small payment for that final week before you’re allowed to start Phase 2 (PEUC), back at your original benefit amount.

The next step will vary by state, so do an internet search to find out your process for sure. In Colorado, go to the Returning/Existing Claimants webpage. Follow the right-hand column for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. [UPDATE 9/9: If you have exhausted your money you should log in, then have an option of "Returning claimant" then "Reopen a claim."] Hopefully, you have a simple claim and can do it this way. However, because I had out-of-state income, I had a major runaround for several weeks. I finally was able to get a callback on that original UI phone line to get the right person to fiddle in the back end. I had continued to file every two weeks in the meantime, even though it said “EXHAUSTED.” (Every time, I muttered, “Yeah, I’m exhausted, too, computer!”) Because I had kept up diligently in the back end, the representative was able to see I was still active and doing all the right things and it went through pretty quickly at that point.

UPDATE 9/5: Check out this article from September 5th for new information on Colorado - "What’s Working: The situation with PUA benefits. Plus, why action is needed to get extra payments.: Getting into the nitty-gritty of Colorado’s unemployment system takes us deeper into holds on PUA payouts, extended benefits and fraud."

UPDATE 9/13 for Coloradans: Because we file every TWO weeks, you may have a "gap week" of zero payment for your second week before you can request your benefits and exhaust your claim. Once your claim hits $0 and is "EXHAUSTED," you can file for PEUC and then you can request a backdate for that second claim. Be sure to date it with the Sunday that starts that week, as our weeks run Sunday to Saturday.

Some Tips

As a reminder, your wages for one year determine your eligibility for unemployment the next. If you live off only unemployment wages for this year, there is a chance you won’t be eligible for any unemployment for the next year’s claim. Any legislation to change this has not been created yet.

I would also recommend having your unemployment take out any taxes NOW, so you’re not stuck trying to come up with that money later without having obtained an additional job.

How can you find out what to do for your own state? Do an internet search with the name of your state and the acronym for which item you want above. Look for Facebook groups or pages set up for your area, too, as described in the Colorado section above.

Work searches are usually requiredeven if some had been waived (or some people THOUGHT they were waived) early in the pandemic. Work search verifications are being asked for again, including for my IATSE-working husband who used to just need to call in to the local once a week. In Colorado, the default is for five job searches a week – though networking, uploading resumes, etc., can also apply for us, fortunately. You also need to register with a “Workforce Center” or other state-run employment service location. In Colorado’s case, you can often call in and have it reduced to three, if you can show that there really isn’t much in your field right now. For Colorado, you can find out your current number of required searches by logging in, then looking for the farthest right light blue tab (“Work Search” - see my screenshot above). As a reminder, in Colorado there are other things you can do, like attend networking events, to fulfill these requirements. Check your state’s guidelines. [UPDATE 9/11: It appears some in Colorado may even be able to reduce it to two.]

Check your file for any forms you need to fill out. In Colorado’s online claim system, they are under the dark blue tab “Online Forms.” A very crucial one to fill out is the Verification of Personal Information, which has to be done before any payment is given.

Do read through your state’s Guide to Unemployment Benefits. Every state is different as to what they allow for work searches, how many and how often you need to look for work as well as file, and more.

Do check through your Statement of Wages and Possible Benefits (or whatever your state calls the document where they tell you how much money you can get). Almost every year I have a job or two missing on the first one they give me, particularly because I usually work in multiple states. Be prepared to fax in your proof of wages, whether W2s or paystubs.

Keep track of any PIN numbers or logins that they give you. Most times the people on the phone cannot reset it for you immediately. (Coloradans can now do it through the online virtual assistant chat bot at ColoradoUI.gov.)

You can adjust your payment between direct deposit and debit card. I highly recommend the direct deposit version.

As I mentioned in my original unemployment post, please do your best to be patient; understand that the person on the other end is a human, too, and likely has nothing to do with what your issue is. One of my favorite phrases is, “I don’t fit in government boxes well.” Also, the last time I talked to a human on the phone (who WAS able to get me switched to PEUC after several weeks of trying online), this is how the conversation went:

Me to Unemployment Rep Mary: I work in the live entertainment industry. It’s a little ..."not happening" right now.

Mary: It’s a LOT not happening right now.

It was so nice to get an understanding, real-live human that day!

I don’t exactly love that I’ve become a bit of an “expert” on unemployment, but I hope I can help others navigate fitting into those government boxes. And here’s to hoping we can stop needing it, too! If you have further insight, please share in the comments, particularly for other states.

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