Freelance and Out of Work? Here’s How to Get Help Now

You thought you didn't qualify for unemployment. But these are different times.

There are several options to help freelancers. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Mary Emily O

Key insights:

Many self-employed creative professionals—from freelance copywriters and creative directors, to entire video production houses—are finding their client rosters are shrinking quickly.

Budgets are being preemptively slashed, if businesses aren’t closing shop entirely, laying off not only employees but also cutting ties with contractors. 

Thousands of Americans have found themselves suddenly out of work over the past week, as cities across the nation shut down to quarantine residents amid the escalating pandemic. According to treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the number of unemployed Americans is projected to grow to 20% of the country’s population—that’s 32 million people.

But even as the number of applicants for unemployment insurance benefits doubled practically overnight, countless more Americans are wondering what to do if they don’t appear to qualify for those benefits. The majority of Americans are employed in the service sector, according to Bureau of Labor stats, and a whopping 16 million people across all industries are self-employed.

Congress is continuing to hash out a bailout deal that could help. In the meantime, freelancers and self-employed entrepreneurs have access to some emergency resources, so even though things are changing quickly each day, here’s a simple guide to get you started.

Unemployment Benefits

The basics: Traditionally, unemployment insurance only covered full-time employees—not freelancers, the self-employed, or most part-time workers. But as quarantine rules force businesses across sectors to shut down temporarily, the government is rapidly altering the way unemployment benefits are handled. While unemployment funds are distributed by the federal government, the states decide how to run their own programs. 

What’s new: Things are changing very quickly. On March 18, the Department of Labor announced it was issuing an additional $100 million in Dislocated Worker Grants to states; those funds do include self-employed freelance workers. On Wednesday, the Senate and White House struck a deal on a $2 trillion aid package that, if passed, will extend unemployment benefits to freelance, self-employed and gig workers. 

Many states were already adjusting the qualifications for unemployment as the dire circumstances become clear, according to Demetra Nightingale, an Urban Institute fellow and former chief evaluation officer at the U.S. Department of Labor. “Some states may be covering those in nonstandard employment,” she said. “It could include some freelancers, day laborers, people who are just working for themselves in a nonstandard way.”

How to get help: Find your state unemployment office here. The National Association of State Workforce Agencies is updating state-by-state unemployment insurance rule changes as well. “It’s going to be easier to get through online than it is by phone,” said Nightingale, noting that unemployment offices are slammed with requests.

Hot tip: Consider whether you may be a misclassified employee and not an independent contractor. According to a 2017 report from the National Employment Law Project, an increasing amount of workers are misclassified as contractors even though they work for companies that treat them like employees (i.e., setting work hours, assigning supervisors, etc.) It’s called payroll fraud, and if you’re a freelancer who has worked in an office or had to report to a manager recently, there’s a good chance you were the victim of it. There’s no better time to let the unemployment office—and the IRS—know.

How to register for food stamps and welfare

The basics: Formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is issued in the form of a debit card that’s only for buying groceries.

If you have kids under the age of 5 or are pregnant, you can also qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a short-term food access program that allows recipients to buy from a restricted list of foods. Families with kids under the age of 19 may also qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF can provide families with cash assistance, childcare assistance and other emergency resources.

What’s new: The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law on March 18, added $1 billion to existing food security programs like SNAP and WIC. It also loosened some of the work requirements that are usually in place so that people don’t have to prove they are job hunting to keep receiving food assistance.

How to get help: Find out how to apply for SNAP and WIC in your state here. If you are unemployed and a parent of a child or 19 or are unemployed and pregnant, apply for TANF here.

Visit an American Job Center

The basics: American Job Centers are an integral component of federal workforce programs, and many of these centers are also connected to local SNAP and TANF assistance programs. Recently, some states have loosened or temporarily halted work requirements to access these benefits.

What’s new: The Department of Labor just issued $100 million in additional grants for dislocated workers that will be distributed to these centers. They could be a good place to look for a new or temporary job to fill in the gaps; while massive layoffs are happening, some sectors (like delivery, pharmacies and healthcare) are in desperate need of more workers during the crisis.

How to get help: Nightingale recommended that anyone who can work visit one of the country’s 2,000 centers, where they can be connected to immediate local employment opportunities. To find your local American Job Center, search by zip code here.

Get free groceries at an emergency food pantry

The basics: If you’ve never been to one, food pantries operate somewhat like small grocery stores that either allow people in need to “shop,” or distribute boxes boxes of essential food items to the community.

What’s new: The Families First bill issued an additional $400 million to the nationwide Emergency Food Assistance Program, which funds food banks around the country. Those banks stock local food pantries.

How to get help: To find your local food bank, search Feeding America’s database here.

Hot tip: See if your local pantry delivers. In locations with shelter in place orders, most people are allowed to leave home for essential items like groceries. But many food pantries are moving to delivery models. In the Bay Area, food banks are in talks with DoorDash and Lyft to negotiate partnerships for food pantry deliveries, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Postpone your bills and debts

The basics: From the IRS to mortgages and utility bills, many obligations are temporarily on hold as both private companies and the government make adjustments that will give Americans time to catch up.

What’s new: Tax season? Not in a pandemic. The IRS has agreed to postpone tax filing for three months past the usual April 15 deadline.

Internet providers like Comcast and Spectrum have announced they won’t be disconnecting anyone’s service for a minimum of 60 days, and will offer free Wi-Fi hotspots. Verizon, AT&T and other phone companies have promised to waive late fees and temporarily halt disconnections during the pandemic.

Most major banks and credit card companies are waiving late fees and interest rates temporarily, suspending credit bureau reporting and taking other measures to give customers a bit of leeway. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enacted 12-month forbearance programs for homeowners, and many cities have passed temporary halts on evicting renters.

Hot tip: No matter what, if you’re concerned about not being able to make payments for the next couple of months, contact your bill issuers or landlords directly, ask about current policies and set up payment plans that work for you.

Apply for a small business disaster grant or loan

The basics: Running a small agency? Are you a freelancer registered as an S-Corp or LLC? Whether you’re running a small one-person professional operation or a restaurant that’s been forced to close under the current public health restrictions, a small business grant or loan could help you get through these next few months.

What’s new: Last week, the government made $2 million available for the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

Several cities and states have enacted emergency programs to keep businesses afloat. In New York, the city is offering emergency grants to cover 40% of payroll costs to companies with fewer than 5 employees, and zero-interest loans up to $75,000 to businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Similar emergency funds are being released to help small businesses in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities.

Private companies are also starting to move money to small businesses. Facebook announced a $100 million initiative to issue cash grants and ad credits to small businesses. Amazon is giving away $5 million in grants to small businesses in Seattle. JP Morgan announced that $8 million will be distributed to small businesses as part of an overall $50 million coronavirus package.

How to get help: Apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan here. Or use the links above to find out more about private sector grants and local initiatives.

Join forces with other freelancers

The basics: There has never been a better time to sign up for groups and associations that lobby on behalf of freelancers or that simply aim to help you find more work.

The Freelancers Union offers health and other insurance plans to its roughly half a million members, and independent marketing agency We Are Rosie offers insurance and 401k plans to its crop of creative freelancers.

In 2019, We Are Rosie also instituted a weekly pay structure. “The weekly pay seems extremely critical right now, and we are internally working to build more resources,” said CEO Stephanie Nadi Olson.

What’s new: The Freelancers Union has been lobbying authorities to include self-employed workers in aid packages. Freelancers Union president Rafael Espinal told Adweek that the city’s new zero-interest small business loans “should extend to include self-employed workers, freelancers. That will ensure they have access to a low-risk line of credit and create cash flow.”

“We are also working around the clock to create a Freelancers Relief fundraising initiative, targeted to help members in dire need of financial assistance,” Espinal said. “We will try to get cash assistance to those in need of groceries and help with paying housing costs.”

How to get help: Apply for free membership in the Freelancers Union here. Apply to become one of We Are Rosie’s independent marketing experts here.


@MaryEmilyOHara maryemily.ohara@adweek.com Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.