Thursday, January 26, 2012

Work, with a Side of Money

In Illinois, to receive unemployment benefits (unemployment insurance payments), you must do something called "certify" your eligibility. I assume this is similarly required in all states. (I just did an informal search of requirements for Michigan, California, Texas, Nevada, Massachusetts and Florida, and found a certification element existed in each of those cases.) Basically, you need to regularly assure the state, before it sends you the next payment for the period of unemployment you're receiving benefits for, that you are:
  • still unemployed
  • willing, able and ready to work
  • actively seeking work, and
  • not turning down work that could be getting you out of the system and back into the workforce
A series of straightforward questions that took about five minutes to answer was all that was required of me yesterday for me to certify my eligibility to receive what will be my first benefits payment. I think I'll be getting it in the next couple of days. I had already signed up for direct deposits to be made into my checking account, so payments will be quicker and easier to receive. Otherwise, the state offers a bank debit card, which is loaded with the amount the unemployed person receives in their payment. That debit card can be used at merchants for purchases, or even at banks to receive cash back.

One of the questions I was most interested in was the one about having worked during this time period I was certifying for. I wondered how it was phrased, and if it seemed like a complex problem were you to answer "yes, I worked." I saw that if you did answer yes, you then had to answer more about receiving pay, and you also had to say if you were laid off or let go from that job. That part threw me, because it doesn't speak the right language to address my situation as a potential freelancer.

To pick up side jobs as a writer, I will be taking on a individual and intermittent projects while still technically being unemployed. I wouldn't be laid off each time I did that. Just because I worked doesn't mean I was hired. The language of this certification process speaks more to a temp worker or a tradesman. And, I won't get paid when I accept a gig, either. It could be 30 or 60 days at least till the project is completed and billed. What about that?

It wasn't easy to find answers to these questions. I eventually did, but first I found many other questions, and interesting answers, which might be even more pressing for some other folks reading this blog. Again, these topics originate in Illinois for my discussion, but some relate to federal laws and are common issues in most if not all other states. For example:

You can be eligible to receive Unemployment Insurance Benefits even if you are still working. Benefits are not only for those who are tragically and completely out of work, they are intended to help offset significant loss of income. This can come from reduction of hours and pay cuts. Even quitting in some cases, if working conditions can be shown to be intolerable.

You can work part-time and still receive benefits in some cases. In fact, you could have your hours cut by your employer and file a case for benefits against that same employer, while you are still working part-time for that employer, and get them. It happens.

You can take side jobs, own your own business, have investment income, etc., and still be okay. It's not against the rules to make money while receiving unemployment benefits. There are limits to how much you can receive and for how long, during what time periods and under what conditions. Just continue to be honest with every form and question, and the state will determine if you're eligible.

If you take a side job that takes your full-time attention, or if you get really sick, report it. The state wants to know if you were available for work every day that they are certifying your eligibility. I didn't think about this...till I thought about it. If you had been called into work and could have made money, you'd have to report that money and possibly not have been eligible for benefits. But if you were in the hospital with a broken arm, you couldn't work. They need to know that. Should you be paid by the state for sick days now? Will you be? I'm not sure. But tell them. Also, if you took an out-of-state consulting job, you were unavailable. You should report that. And that leads us to this:

If you do make money, due to working, freelance gigs, side jobs, anything, you have to report it. I know the unemployment benefits are not a lot of money. They only are enough to help you eek by and stay fed and warm. But the system is set up to bridge a gap and not let you starve, to give you a leg up and not a hand out. It does that by trying to making sure everyone can only receive payments of so much for so long, so we don't run out when other people need it, too. Surely we don't want employers to go broke paying out insurance payments; we need them to be there to hire more people in the future. Well, that's the idea anyway. But actually, I'm not saying you should report it from high moral ground.

I'm saying report it from the ground that is outside of a fraud case, the ground that is all level and green and not muddied with penalties and payback amounts. Because if you don't report it, and you have to continue to collect, especially if you eventually reach the limit of benefits you are eligible to receive, and later the state learns of your additional income while collecting those benefits, income that you didn't report, you're in big trouble. They will want their money back and then some.

Besides, what you want now is work, and money from working. And wait, let me guess, a little good karma and some lucky fairy dust wouldn't hurt at this point, either. So let's not mess with the blessings of the system. Especially not when people can even work part-time and still receive benefits. That's pretty amazing, isn't it? The universe wants us to make it, I'm convinced.

When you report your income, you might not get a reduction in your benefits payment. Or you might be docked a little, or you might have a payment withheld completely, depending on your situation, your benefits and eligibility formula, and what you made. Okay. But you got this other payment instead--which is the whole idea, right? You're trying to be paid for being employed. And you did it! Yay you! String that into a bunch of weeks then months, and we're back in business.

About my concerns over delayed completion of projects and billing someone later, and all that. It hasn't happened yet, but when it does, I'll report when I am unavailable to work, and again I'll report when I get some money paid to me. Until then, I'm so available and without income. I only have to certify, online or via automated phone system, every two weeks. That's ten minutes a month to answer a few questions. Now that I know I only have to tell them the truth, it seems even easier still.

Thank you, web of bureaucracy, for such a breeze of a ToDo for any day.

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