Self-employed and out of work? Apply for unemployment anyway, says Department of Labor

The Alaska Department of Labor building in Juneau. (Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The Department of Labor is now asking self-employed, independent contractors, and gig-economy workers to apply for regular unemployment benefits, even though they will likely be denied. 

That comes after previous guidance that those non-traditional workers wait until the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is up and running. 

The reason, explains Patsy Westcott, director of the Division of Employment and Training Services, is that recently-released federal guidance requires that self-employed, independent contractors and gig-economy workers be denied for traditional unemployment benefits before they can be approved for PUA.

“They will receive a notice in the mail saying they’re not eligible for regular benefits,” said Westcott. That letter will provide proof, once the program is up and running, that they were denied benefits. 

And to keep documentation, individuals should keep filing on a weekly basis. 

“Once we do get the new program stood up and running, we are going to take all of that data on those claims that are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance and run a program to move that data over to the new program,” said Westcott. 

Filing as a non-traditional worker is not a requirement to eventually receive PUA benefits, said Westcott, but it will save both the worker and the Department of Labor headaches later on. 

Getting the PUA program up and running to where it can make payments is estimated to take until early May, meaning non-traditional workers won’t be receiving payments until then, potentially two months after losing employment due to the coronavirus.

The good news is that the payments can be retroactive that will be paid to all workers who qualify for unemployment benefits. In other words, individuals who lost work in mid-March can get their unemployment benefits paid for each week they lost work due to the virus. 

RELATED: Alaska Legislature eases unemployment insurance benefit rules, weighs other emergency measures

While all workers are encouraged to apply, there are still reports of issues filing applications with the Department of Labor’s system. Westcott said the department is making progress day-by-day.

“We are being very understanding of the situation as far as an individual’s ability to get through on our phone lines because we’re busy,” said Westcott. She said the department continues to onboard new staff, some of whom are being rehired out of retirement, and increasing phone-line capacity.

She advises that once workers do get in touch with a Department of Labor representative, just be sure to let them know of the situation so that they can get started in providing the proper documentation.

And for those who are looking for work, the department said it is also hiring.

RELATED: Confused about social services, unemployment or stimulus money? We’ve got you covered.

This article has been corrected to clarify that PUA payments may take until early May to go out

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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