Self-employed, independent contractors can apply for unemployment benefits

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RALEIGH – A federal program to pay unemployment benefits to self-employed people and independent contractors went live in North Carolina Friday, April 24, Assistant Secretary of the Division of Employment Security Lockhart Taylor told lawmakers Tuesday.

This will let people who aren’t typically eligible for benefits draw down weekly payments backed by the federal government.

A related program, to extend benefits for people who have exhausted the 12 weeks allowed under North Carolina law, isn’t ready to launch, Taylor said. He said he hoped to have a timetable by Wednesday, April 29. Both programs will pay benefits retroactively back to at least early April.

Taylor also said he hopes the addition of another 600 call takers will radically boost the state’s ability to handle incoming calls, and he told legislators that he’s hoping to handle up to 33,000 a day. He said an upgrade to a cloud-based phone system has improved capacity issues on the phone lines and cut down on automatic disconnects.

Taylor’s division has taken some 690,000 unemployment claims since March 16. That’s roughly 13 percent of the state’s civilian workforce. The law also requires people to file weekly certifications to keep getting benefits.

The division said it took in 17,000 claims Monday, April 20, and it has paid out more than half a billion dollars in unemployment benefits since March 15. Most of that was funded by federal legislation that added an extra $600 a week to the state’s benefits, which are usually among the lowest in the nation.

The 13-week extension also contemplated in that bill will cover people who were out of work before COVID-19 crashed the economy. 

Taylor said it will cover people who lost their job going back to July of last year, but they will need to be out of work now due to COVID-19.

He said DES staff is programming that system now and that he did not think people would need to file another claim.

Taylor indicated that, when the program for self-employed people and independent contractors went live this past Friday, people who’ve already filed should be able to go back into their existing claim and answer new questions.

He said DES will “absolutely have call center staff” working.

Gov. Roy Cooper has signed an executive order to let temporarily furloughed employees receive unemployment benefits, even if they’re also getting voluntary payments from their employer.

The state has gone from some 3,200 claims a week in 2019 to nearly 20,000 a day.

“Let’s not thank me until we get your phones to stop ringing and the people eligible for the benefits get the benefits,” Taylor said.