Since we still haven’t managed to get our unemployment numbers under control while waiting for the country to reopen, Congress is debating yet another stimulus package. Unlike the first massive round of stimulus spending, there’s a possibility that our friends in the swamp may actually fix an issue that was overlooked when they arranged the initial tranche of federal enhancements to unemployment benefits.
A couple of months ago, Politico reported on a shortcoming in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, one that particularly affected the music industry, but plenty of other works as well. The Recording Industry Association of America, along with a host of other companies and related trade groups, sent a letter to senior congressional leaders saying that the PUA program “has overlooked workers with mixed-income… In almost all cases that we see in every state, a minimum amount of W-2 income disqualifies a self-employed individual for PUA and significantly lowers the amount of assistance they receive. PUA must be updated to recognize these different income streams and allow individuals to show their mixed sources of revenue for a full accounting of their annual income.”
The music industry, meanwhile, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer this morning outlining a number of asks, including changes to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Many musicians and others in the industry “work from project to project and gig to gig, not only in multiple jobs but in various capacities,” receiving a combination of wages and income as independent contractors, the Recording Industry Association of America, the National Independent Venue Association and dozens of other companies and trade groups write in the letter.
In other words, if your primary line of work is mostly part-time and you supplement your income with a bunch of side gigs, contract work or self-employment (think Uber drivers or delivery app workers) your total income on record could fail to qualify you for the enhanced federal unemployment benefits. This winds up leaving workers out in the cold when they actually earned enough money to have qualified for the benefits.
The music industry—especially the country music industry— is pushing for this change because a lot of people who work in it do part-time, W2 work but bolster their income with contract work when they don’t have a music industry gig available. Why does this specific industry matter in terms of all the lobbying going on? Because Senator Marsha Blackburn, who represents Tennessee with its massive country music industry—is one of the Senators pushing for this fix:
It’s not that massive of a change to the existing PUA program either. Congress just needs to allow mixed-income earners to choose which part of their income (the independent contractor side or the employee side) they want to list when applying for enhanced unemployment benefits.
Unfortunately for them, more than two months after the question first started coming up, this issue still hasn’t been resolved. But it looks as if Congress is going to try to shove through another round of COVID stimulus funding in the coming weeks. Assuming there are enough votes to shovel another several trillion dollars of debt onto the bonfire of our federal finances, this might be a good provision to include.
This wouldn’t be a bad move for Mitch McConnell to take up in terms of the political optics. Democrats are busy spouting off about how the GOP is only looking to help their fat cat, big business friends on Wall Street, and leaving the “little people” to eat cake. This specific “fix” to the PUA would be directed at the comparatively small number of people with hybrid incomes who are more vulnerable than most to the effects of the shutdown. And if the Democrats dared to oppose it just because the idea was brought up by a Republican (don’t put it past them), McConnell and Blackburn could eat their lunch over it.
I’m not here advocating for even more massive rounds of spending, but it almost looks unavoidable at this point. And if we’re going to do it anyway, we might as well help out some people who were particularly damaged by government decisions to shut down their income stream and score a few political points in the process.