With the Coronavirus causing cancellations of concerts, schools, church services, and other gigs, many of you are wondering about unemployment benefits for musicians. Are you eligible?
Unemployment insurance is provided at the state level and each state has its own eligibility, rules, and application process. To find the link for your own state, visit the US Department of Labor website here. This site includes any new rules or benefits offered because of the COVID-19 crisis.
If you are a W-2 musician (an “employee”) you are generally eligible for benefits if you have lost work due to Coronavirus. You don’t have to be a full-time employee or work exclusively for just one employer. Even if your lay-off is temporary, and you are not permanently “fired”, you may still be eligible for benefits. Please check your state rules and verify before assuming you aren’t eligible. And know that filing for benefits doesn’t cost your employer. They already paid premiums to the state for this insurance.
Here in Texas, the state will need your past five quarters of earnings and will base your benefit on the first 4 of 5 quarters. Benefits range from $69 to $521 a week, depending on your past wages. You should apply as soon as possible to avoid missing any weeks of benefits. There is often a lag of three or so weeks until you receive your first payment.
The bigger challenge for musicians is that many of us are 1099 or “Independent Contractors”. If you are self-employed, you are generally not going to be eligible for unemployment benefits. Minnesota offers benefits to the self-employed, but only if you paid into the program in advance. So, you need to check your own state rules to verify.
This brings up an important point. Many ensembles incorrectly classify musicians as Independent Contractors, when they should be Employees. Some musicians point out that they have more tax deductions as an Independent Contractor. That’s true. However, you miss out on two big advantages as a Employee. First is Unemployment Benefits, which you don’t get as a 1099. Second is that an employer has to pay 7.65% towards your Social Security and Medicare taxes. This cuts in half the Self-Employment tax that you would pay as a 1099. That’s like a 7.65% raise by going from 1099 to W-2.
The Lancaster Symphony Case set a legal precedent that orchestra musicians are employees. It’s time for orchestras to stop classifying musicians as Independent Contractors. That would allow more Unemployment Benefits for working musicians.
Stay healthy. I hope this will pass soon so we can all get back to performing, teaching, and sharing our love of music. Don’t be afraid to ask about Unemployment Benefits for Musicians. Yes, it can be a pain to apply and meet all the ongoing eligibility requirements. But if you are out of work, don’t delay in getting the benefits you deserve.
UPDATE April 3, 2020: The CARES Act passed last week is expanding Federal unemployment coverage to include self-employed individuals. While this benefit is supposedly available immediately, the states are still working on how to actually do this. Here in Texas, there are presently no instructions or process to apply for unemployment benefits for self-employed, “gig economy” workers. But this should be available soon. We will have to see how they will calculate your income and benefits, it will be interesting!