MAINE, USA — As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, the health of Americans is on the front lines. Another aspect of daily life that is being hit hard, though, is employment.

The Maine Department of Labor reported that last week, its unemployment insurance webpage had more than 90,000 views on Friday, March 20. That's up from 1,400 just a week before. The unemployment insurance program is a social insurance program that employers pay into -- and then, in an economic downturn, employees are eligible for a partial wage replacement. 

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For some Mainers, though, unemployment benefits aren't a reality. Sole proprietors and self-employed people don't typically pay those unemployment taxes, which means they are not eligible to receive money from the trust fund. 

Determining whether you are self-employed is generally based on how you file your taxes. For example, self-employed people typically use 1099 forms, while W-2 forms are used for employees.

There may be some hope for self-employed Mainers, though, who are in need of assistance. Late Wednesday, March 25, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to pass a $2 trillion stimulus bill to aid Americans in the wake of coronavirus. This legislation includes something called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which Maine DOL Commissioner Laura Fortman, says would be helpful to self-employed people.

"It’s our understanding -- and again we haven’t seen the language -- that that will provide unemployment insurance coverage for 1099 employees, for sole proprietors, for, you know, gig workers," Fortman explained to NEWS CENTER Maine.

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In the meantime, there are a few other options self-employed Mainers can pursue. Fortman recommends that self-employed people visit the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development's website. From there, there are COVID-19 relief loan programs that people can pursue, if it makes sense for themselves or their businesses.

"I don’t think anyone was prepared for the coronavirus, and, you know, we’ve never seen something like this," Fortman expressed, regarding how the DOL has been trying to handle the influx of unemployment benefits claims.

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For many self-employed people, the choice between personal livelihood and health has been complicated. Irish Nason owns her own salon, Irish's Beauty Bar, and says that four days ago, she decided to close as a precaution against COVID-19.

"I said, 'I’m going to have to close, and people just need to stay home, or these numbers are just going to continue to grow,'" Nason told NEWS CENTER Maine via video call. "As they do, people are dying."

Nason says she is lucky that her husband is still employed full-time but knows how difficult this situation will be for fellow hairstylists.

"In our industry, there is no income if you don’t go to work," Nason said. "You have to be there. You have to provide the service, and then you get paid."

Even for those who have the option of working remotely, making the same basic income can be challenging. Jennifer Frost is a self-employed therapist who does outpatient counseling at RSU 2 public schools. Since schools have closed, she says she has been having a hard time keeping all of her clients, since some of them do not want to do sessions over the phone. She is concerned and feels she has not received clear enough answers regarding what the future might look like for self-employed people. 

"So far, I’ve just been hearing, 'Wait, and we’ll see what happens,'" Frost expressed. "But I mean, you can only do that so long before you’ll end up negative in the bank account or something."

The U.S. House is expected to vote on the emergency relief package on Friday. At this point, it is expected to pass and would then head to the President to be signed into law. 

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.newscentermaine.com/coronavirus