Hello to all. April has been an incredibly difficult month for New Yorkers of all walks of life. When I wrote the last article, we knew that things were going to get worse in April, and for a while they did. However, it’s incredibly promising to see the progress we have made as a City and that the social distancing measures that have been instituted have been working.

While the spread of COVID-19 and its demand on our healthcare system has slowly been improving, the economy still has a long way to go and I’m sure that all drivers are really hurting right now.

In April, Governor Cuomo extended his PAUSE order through May 15, which is keeping residents at home and all non-essential businesses closed. In late April, he announced that he plans on extending that order longer for many of the hardest-hit areas in New York. Unfortunately, New York City is far and away the hardest-hit area, so it stands to reason that things will not be returning to some semblance of “normal” for quite some time. This is why in this month’s article, I want to stress that filing for unemployment benefits is something that all drivers who have been unable to work, or have seen a decline in their amount of work, should be doing.

Traditionally, most black car drivers have not been eligible for unemployment benefits due to their independent contractor status. However, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act has extended these benefits to independent contractors in the form of three new additions to traditional Unemployment Insurance (UI):

  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)
  • Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC)
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC).

Long story short, PUA is what has extended UI benefit eligibility to self-employed workers and independent contractors. PUC provides an additional $600 per week, on top of regular benefits, to all UI recipients through July 31, 2020. Lastly, PEUC provides an additional 13 weeks of UI, beyond the 26 weeks already provided by New York State, for a total of 39 weeks of benefits.

If you haven’t already, you should file online at https://unemployment.labor.ny.gov/login.

Filing online is the best method because getting through to the Department of Labor (DOL) by phone continues to be challenging. It’s also important to remember that once you are processed, your benefits will be calculated going back to the first day you were affected, not the day your application is completed. This applies to the additional $600 from the PUC as well.

There have also been some changes to the process that have streamlined it and made it easier. First, as of late April, drivers can now apply to both UI benefits and PUA benefits simultaneously. Prior to this, due to federal guidelines, drivers were required to first apply for traditional UI and be rejected, before they were able to apply for PUA. Now, one form is all that’s needed. The DOL has also greatly expanded its staff and increased its infrastructure to ensure its website does not experience crashes as it had at the beginning. Lastly, you will no longer have to call the DOL in order to finalize your claim. They will call you back within 72 hours.

Another feature of the CARES act was that most Americans have received, or will be receiving, a check for $1,200 from the Federal Government. This payment was extended to all those who earned less than $75,000 ($150,000 for families). On Wednesday, April 15, most Americans who had provided the IRS with their Direct Deposit information in their 2018 or 2019 tax returns, received their stimulus payment via Direct Deposit.

If you haven’t, I encourage you to check the status of your payment at the following website: https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/get-my-payment. If you have not filed taxes for 2018 or 2019, or if you haven’t provided the IRS with Direct Deposit information and would like to. You can do so at https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/non-filers-enter-payment-info-here. If you do not provide your Direct Deposit information, a check will instead be mailed to you, although the timeline on this is still uncertain.

Here at The Fund, we have been working hard and doing everything we are able to do to help drivers during this time. First, our staff has been continuing to work through the pandemic, both remotely and in the office, to ensure that Workers’ Compensation claims are being processed and payments to those with active claims are being made.

We have also teamed up with the Independent Drivers Guild and Drivers Benefits to distribute safety kits to drivers at black car bases and DeliveryTLC lineup locations throughout New York City. These kits include masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and information on all the free benefits that we provide to drivers.

We have been working hard to source additional safety kit materials. Due to the nature of this operation, I strongly encourage you to follow us on social media in order to get the latest updates on distribution locations, which are subject to change rapidly. We are active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and our handle is @nybcf across all platforms. Please follow us and stay connected!

Additionally, we are committed to sharing financial resources, relevant news, as well as health and wellness tips to Covered Drivers during this crisis. Our goal is to continue to educate and inform our drivers of the benefits we offer, as well as connect them with other outlets where pertinent information may be accessed. Be sure to visit our new COVID-19 page on our website for up-to-date information, as it becomes available: https://www.nybcf.org/covid19.

Before I wrap up, I also wanted to touch on some developments that have happened in recent weeks as a result of COVID-19. Two months ago, it really seemed as though New York wasn’t going to be making changes to independent contractors’ employment status or address the lack of benefits workers in the gig economy are faced with. However, the pandemic reignited this issue. In late April, the New York City Council introduced legislation that would essentially give independent contractors “employee” status, only for the purposes of paid sick leave. If this bill were to pass, independent contractors would not be considered employees for any other purpose but would be required to receive paid sick leave.

This bill was part of a package of COVID-19 related bills which included a NYC Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights. Another bill would require essential businesses with more than 100 workers to pay non-salaried essential workers an extra $30 for a shift under four hours, $60 for four to eight hours and $75 for shifts longer than eight hours. Regardless of size, essential businesses would also be barred from terminating essential workers without cause. These provisions would apply until the state of emergency is lifted. Also, for the purposes of this legislation, essential workers would include employees as well as independent contractors.

The Council also introduced a non-binding resolution that called on the State Legislature to classify gig workers as employees. This would be done through the ABC test, which was the basis of California’s controversial AB5 legislation. In a perfect world, our elected officials would be taking our model, which has allowed us to provide portable benefits to independent contractors for over two decades and expanding it to provide benefits to the gig economy. This is what we have called for and what I will continue fighting for. It remains to be seen what our elected officials end up doing, however. This is something we will be watching closely and I’m sure I will have more updates in next month’s article.

On a final note, in the last week of April, de Blasio announced that New York City would be opening up 40 miles of city streets within the next month to provide New Yorkers with safe spaces to spend time outdoors while maintaining social distancing. City Council had originally pushed a plan to open up 100 miles of city streets for pedestrian use and threatened to go to the Governor if Mayor de Blasio refused to listen. However, they struck a deal and settled on the 40-mile figure.

The city will begin to create this space by focusing on streets in and around parks, which are seeing the most overcrowding as the weather continues improving. Some streets will be closed completely for pedestrian traffic, while others will see expanded sidewalks, similar to what was done around Rockefeller Center during the holiday season. The City Council, Mayor’s office and Department of Transportation will work together to determine which streets will be “pedestrianized”. We will keep an eye out for news on this as it will obviously affect drivers.

Things have been tough for everyone this past month, but it’s important for everyone to remember that drivers remain on the front lines. They are transporting essential workers of businesses that are still open. They are transporting our health care workers. They are delivering food to those in need. They are keeping the city running at a time when the MTA has cut service in response to reduced demand.

They are also facing financial hardships like never before and I will continue advocating for any and all kinds of assistance aimed at helping them get through these hard times. I hope everyone is staying safe and I hope that we are in a better place when I sit down to write next month’s column.

Once again, please continue to visit our website for updates and I also encourage you to visit the Drivers Benefits and Independent Drivers Guild websites for more information. You can visit their pages at https://driversbenefits.org/covid19-faq/ and https://drivingguild.org/resources/ respectively. As always, please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. Until next month.

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Article by Ira Goldstein

Ira Goldstein is Executive Director of the New York Black Car Fund, Chief Operating Officer of the Black Car Assistance Corporation and Treasurer of the Coalition of Transportation Associations.

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