Governor Charlie Baker announced Thursday that the state has begun implementing provisions of the federal CARES Act for the distribution of increased unemployment benefits, but he said "gig" workers and other self-employed will have to wait until the end of April to apply.
That delay is due to the need for the state to construct an online platform to process those claims.
“We’ll communicate with the public when the [Department of Unemployment Assistance] is ready to accept new applications,” Baker said. “I think we know this is frustrating for many people here in Massachusetts.
“In the new federal CARES Act, those new benefits haven’t been made available as quickly as any of us would like.”
Under the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, a new COVID-19 benefit of $600 weekly will be distributed to all recipients retroactive to March 29 — in addition to normal unemployment benefits they were already eligible for.
The benefits will extend to 39 weeks for new claimants with an additional 13 weeks being offered to those whose benefits were previously exhausted.
Baker said that for people already in the traditional system, expanding their benefits will be more or less immediate. But for independent contractors, self-employed and gig workers, the state has to build a whole new system for verifying their employment and income and generating payments to them. "We will do it, its just going to take a few weeks," he said.
Jonathan Gruber, a professor of economics at MIT, said it’s still too early to tell but the unemployment rate could climb as high as 20 percent nationally.
“The quick closures [have] happened,” Gruber said in an interview. “Now the question will be: Will there be another wave?”
Around 140,000 individuals filed unemployment in Massachusetts last week – making the total over the past three weeks 470,000. WGBH News reported Thursday that many applicants have been unable to complete their applications or get through to the department's customer service hotline.
Baker said that as of Tuesday, around 250,000 new claimants were receiving benefits through the Department of Unemployment Assistance, and the state is working through a backlog created by the increase in claims.
“These numbers obviously are staggering,” he said. “Behind every new claim is a story of unprecedented hardship because of this virus.”
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito also announced during the press conference that the state is expanding domestic violence services through the 2-1-1 phone system, called Safelink.
The program was originally designed to direct survivors of sexual and domestic violence to escape planning and other resources. Now it will directly connect callers to rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs that can provide services.
“Although many of the physical spaces of these resources have temporarily closed,” Polito said, “we want to insure everyone there are still resources available to you.”
Reporter Jenifer McKim contributed to this report.