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Millions Of Gig Workers Depend On New Unemployment Program, But Fear It'll End Soon


Millions of Americans are now relying on a safety net that did not exist six months ago. It's a new unemployment program for gig workers and others who don't have traditional jobs. New numbers released by the Labor Department today suggest the program has outgrown the standard unemployment system, and that's a sign that the system has not kept pace with a changing American workforce. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Kris Snyder didn't set out to be a professional musician.


KRIS SNYDER: I am a fourth generation in my family to play the harp, but I never meant to.

HORSLEY: Snyder spent the first part of her working life as a corporate trainer for a big retail company. But after churning through seven managers in five years, she got frustrated. So she gave up the regular paycheck and corporate benefits and started looking for music gigs.

SNYDER: For me, gigging means what I call life events - weddings, funerals, parties, that sort of thing.

HORSLEY: Snyder supplemented her performing income by teaching the harp to about two dozen students at her home in Pennsylvania. She also became a kind of musical therapist, with regular appointments at a nursing home and a hospice.

SNYDER: It just became a calling. It fed my heart. I guess that's the best way to describe it - is it just fed my heart.

HORSLEY: The work also helped to feed her family until the pandemic hit this spring and the music suddenly stopped.

SNYDER: It was horrible. I had absolutely no income coming in. My husband, who's a mechanic - he was on a rolling furlough. And I was terrified of losing our home.

HORSLEY: Snyder didn't qualify for traditional unemployment because she didn't have a regular payroll job. But Congress quickly stitched together a new safety net. Ernie Tedeschi, a former Treasury Department official, says it's modeled on help the government usually provides after a natural disaster.

ERNIE TEDESCHI: It's designed not just to help gig economy workers or the self-employed; it's also designed to help people who had spotty work history that wouldn't have qualified for regular unemployment insurance.

HORSLEY: That turns out to be a lot of people. According to the Labor Department's tally, more than 14 million people were collecting benefits under the program at the end of last month. That's more than were collecting regular unemployment.

MICHELE EVERMORE: Number one, that tells me that too few people qualify for regular unemployment insurance. We actually probably do need a system that's responsive to the changing nature of the workforce.

HORSLEY: Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project cautions the Labor Department tally is probably too high. There have been persistent reporting problems with the new program. And because it requires less documentation than regular unemployment, it's been a target for fraud. Tedeschi, who's now at the investment research firm Evercore ISI, figures the real number of people in the program is probably between 6 and 10 million. That's still a lot of people who would've gotten nothing from the traditional safety net.

TEDESCHI: When this crisis is over, we need to take a good, hard look at how regular state unemployment insurance is structured and, at the very least, update it for the realities of a workforce that is substantially gig economy and self-employed.

HORSLEY: Gig workers, like others who lost jobs during the pandemic, have already seen their benefits cut at the end of July. Harpist Kris Snyder went from receiving $775 a week to just $175. What's more, unless Congress acts to extend it, this big new gig workers' program is set to expire altogether at the end of this year. Snyder says she's grateful for the help she's gotten, but she's also nervous.

SNYDER: What's going to happen this winter? I feel like a squirrel burying nuts. I don't know when I'll be able to go back to work the way I used to work, if I'll ever be able to go back to the way I used to work.

HORSLEY: Millions of others who've lost nontraditional jobs are wondering the same thing.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.