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COVID-19 Crisis Put Thousands Of Independent Contractors Out Of Work — But They Can’t File For Unemployment

With no income, no paid time off and no unemployment benefits, 1099 workers in Illinois — 18 percent of the state's workforce — are "unbelievably stressed."

Barber shops have been deemed non-essential — but many workers don't qualify for unemployment.
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DOWNTOWN — When Gov. JB Pritzker announced his stay at home order last week, businesses deemed “non-essential” were forced to close.

This includes hair salons, where many stylists pay rent to salon owners to use a chair. These employees are considered independent contractors, and even though they can’t legally work right now, they don’t qualify for unemployment, either —since the firms that pay them do not pay into the state’s fund for unemployed workers through payroll taxes.

Eighteen percent of Illinois’ workforce are part of the so-called gig economy, according to ADP Research Institute, which published its newest report on the gig economy last month, according to The Daily Line. Illinois is tied for third place among states with the largest segments of work carried out by gig workers, according to the report.

RELATED: Out Of Work Due To Coronavirus? Here’s How To Get Unemployment Benefits, Rent Relief And More

“Things are dire thanks to a pandemic that is crushing gig workers who are already marginalized,” said Leonard “Lenny” Sanchez, co-founder of Gig Workers Matter. “And very few gig workers can afford time off to create a cushion for themselves or to pay for health insurance.”

Despite being invisible to many, the concerns of independent contractors, many of whom do not have health insurance, are legitimate, said Sanchez, who has been doing food deliveries by bicycle the last several months is currently awaiting the results of his own COVID-19 test.

Last week, more than 64,000 rushed to apply for unemployment benefits in the state. So many people logged on to the state’s website, it crashed. But thousands of independent contractors are ineligible — and don’t know what to do.

Gov. JB Pritzker acknowledged the gap in coverage during a Monday news conference, saying states are waiting for Congress to pass an emergency spending package that will get cash in the hands of these workers. He also said the state’s unemployment website had been upgraded.

“You’ve seen some wrangling going on with Washington, D.C., and this stimulus bill,” Pritzker said. “It’s in part to protect your interests. … Democrats are standing up and saying those who aren’t currently covered by unemployment,” like 1099 employees.

“The Republicans seem to want to give a lot of money to companies and not require that any of that money go to their workers and not provide anything for gig workers or hourly workers,” Pritzker said. “In 2008 and 2009 there were really no controls were put on the money that was handed out. And much of that money could end up you know being used for stock buybacks or something else instead of helping average families — middle class, working class families — across the state.”

Local workers rights advocacy groups are in the process of organizing gig workers across Chicago to put together a petition urging government officials and rideshare corporations like Lyft and Uber to provide help for workers suffering hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, advocates took part in a conference call with each other and with several “gig workers,” defined as independent contractors who file taxes under a 1099. Led by Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, workers say they want financial relief as well as changes to Medicaid.

Christine Cebulak of Norwood Park, a rideshare driver for the last 6 years who has not driven since late December because of the threat of coronavirus, has seen her income drop more than 50 percent. 

“I’m a news junkie and I’ve followed this since it started in China. I stopped driving because I think it’s a 50-50 chance that I’m gonna have somebody with the virus in the car,” Cebulak said. 

She said that Lyft and Uber should “absolutely” give some sort of financial help to drivers to help get them through this period and would support any efforts to push them to do so.

“I’m very glad they are talking about it and I could show that I haven’t driven because of this.” 

Currently Cebulak is working as a home caregiver to elderly patients on weekends and is not needed during the week.

“I get an extra day once in a blue moon but other than that it’s just weekends. No one can guarantee me anymore than that. I’m so stressed, unbelievably stressed,” Cebulak said

Specifically, they are asking for employers like Lyft and Uber to pay $2,000 to each driver; the City of Chicago to tap into its Ground Transportation Fund to assist taxi drivers; the State of Illinois to allow these types of workers to file for unemployment and for the state to extend unemployment insurance to 12 months.

Eli Martin, a Lyft and Uber driver and founder of Chicago Rideshare Advocates, said gig workers make up the largest share of Illinois’ workforce. 

“If you look at the numbers of active Uber and Lyft drivers in Chicago, you’re easily looking at 150,000 so we dwarf the next largest employer by a factor of two or three. And we’re basically unprotected. People that realize that when they watch the news they are talking about sick relief for Walmart workers, they are talking about paid time off for white-collar jobs and they are ignoring the actual largest employer in our state even though as independent contractors we are kind of the invisible workforce.”

Gilberto Castro, a Pilsen hair stylist who co-owns Cosmos The Salon at 1010 W. 18th St. in Pilsen, said he is concerned about money but supports the shutdown.

“It’s more important to be healthy than to force our guests to be there too. Yes, it’s hurting our pocket, but at the same time it’s also giving us a sense that we aren’t part of the problem.”

Castro said he thinks the state should provide some sort of financial relief to workers and also building owners who may not be receiving rent payments, but added until he learns details on any plan, he is worried that any financial relief may cost more than it’s worth. 

“There should be something that can help us out as long as it’s not something that will cost us more later. That was a concern of mine right away. I wondered if it would cost us more in the long run and if so, I rather take the hit than take the help.”

Castro said to get through the shutdown, they are considering selling gift cards and are not sure what else they can do.

“We haven’t really figured out other methods yet and the longer we wait, the more it costs.”

He also said he’s always been a “saver” and has some money to get through a short-term shutdown, but “doesn’t want to use it all up.” 

As for the coronavirus situation overall, Castro feels it will impact people more than financially.

“It’s completely shifted our paradigm. It’s going to give people a different way of looking at things,” Castro said.

Hurley said they are in the process of putting together a petition for independent contractors to sign hopes that will begin a dialogue with both state and local officials as well as decision makers at Lyft and Uber.

She did not know how many signatures they are aiming for or for how long the petition will be available. For more information, independent contractors are urged to go to

A petition calling on a federal aid package for the country’s cosmetology, barber and body work industry is circulating widely online.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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