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Newly Eligible Arts Workers Try To Navigate Ky.'s Unemployment System

Louisville playwrights Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds.
Courtesy Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds
Louisville playwrights Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds.

It was like a domino effect back in mid-March. 

Louisville playwrights and co-artistic directors of Theatre [502], Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds, watched all of their gigs go away due to the COVID-19 outbreak, starting with the postponement of their own theater company’s show, “Gasping Whiteness,” days before opening. Then the teaching jobs were canceled and there were big question marks around writing commissions.

Very quickly, it became obvious, they had lost all of their income. 

“It dawned fast,” Grisanti said. 

All of their work is contract work, and it was a relief to learn that they could, for the first time, apply for unemployment. 

The state reports that there have been more than 521,500 unemployment claims filed in Kentucky since March 16. That unprecedented flood of applicants includes newly eligible workers, independent contractors, self-employed, freelancers, substitute teachers and others who were able to apply for benefits after Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear expanded unemployment eligibility through an executive order on March 25.

Yet, for Grisanti, the application itself felt a bit like a riddle to solve. 

Navigating The system

“I was filling out all of these answers that I was just like, not applicable, hoping that they would sort of read the narrative at the beginning,” she said.  

Moulds said they both got letters in the mail, telling them they didn’t qualify “because we don’t have enough wages.”

“And we don't have any wages, because to have wages, you have to be an employee and we're not employees, we’re contractors,” he said.  

Then they got a second letter, a reconsideration letter, with the same message, that they didn’t qualify.

“I feel like we messed it up and we need to do it again,” Grisanti said. 

Louisville actor, teaching artist and stand-up comedian Keith McGill said “everything I do is a 1099.” The 1099 is the form used by independent contractors.

McGill lost about 10 different gigs due to the pandemic and tried applying for unemployment benefits on March 27 shortly after a colleague in the local arts community told him he was now eligible. He encountered issues straight away.  

“I kept getting the ‘system is down’ messages,” he said, adding that it took him a few days to get his application completed because of the technical glitches. 

But the “weirdest part,” he said, was “trying to figure out how to navigate a system that had not been set up for a person who was a gig worker.”

“I'm sure if I lost one job, then I could just put in that job and provide proof for that,” McGill said. “But because I lost several jobs, I wasn't sure which job to put in first or which job to put in if I just had one choice. So, I don't know if I did exactly the right thing or not.”

McGill said he got an approval letter on April 3 and is now waiting for his first payment.

It’s been more than two weeks since Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds, of Theatre [502], first applied for benefits. They said they still don’t know if they messed it up or if they just don’t qualify. So last week, Moulds filed a new claim. Grisanti did not, but she did upload some 1099s to her existing claim. 

“I'm not resentful of anybody in the state of Kentucky for how it’s being handled,” Moulds said. “If I knew that I would eventually be able to be heard and to be processed, that would make me feel so much better, even if it took a long long time”

On Tuesday morning, Moulds said he saw several pending deposits from unemployment in his bank account. Still nothing for Grisanti.

Long-Term Vs. Short-Term

The couple isn’t panicking yet, because they had some good fortune last fall, when Moulds had a several-day winning streak on the televised game show Jeopardy

“We are very lucky for this random Jeopardy money,” Grisanti said. “I'm super aware that we have it better than a lot of people, a lot of artists.”

They said those winnings will cover expenses for them and their three-year-old for awhile. But they’re still worried because they don’t know what this all means for the national and local economy, and for the theater world.

“Assuming that there's going to be collateral damage to all of those things,” Moulds said. “If that means it'll be several years before we get paid to write a play again, that'll hurt.”

A ‘historic number of claims’

The influx of people applying has overtaxed the state’s antiquated unemployment system, which was overdue for upgrades, according to a recent WFPL report.  

Gov. Andy Beshear said the state government has seen a “historic number of claims.” 

“To those who have filed for unemployment, and we haven’t gotten to you yet, this is our responsibility and I’m sorry that it’s taking so long,” Beshear said during his Sunday evening briefing. 

During Monday’s briefing, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman expanded on that, saying the state’s unemployment system has processed double the amount of claims since early March that it did in 2019 total

“We are averaging about 13,000 new claims being filed every day and about 25,000 phone calls every day,” Coleman said.

She urged people who have already filed not to file another claim — unless your original benefits expired — and said they will prioritize applicants who “are past their two-week period.” 

JT Henderson, executive director of communications with the state’s Education & Workforce Development Cabinet, said in an email to WFPL that they’re bumping up call center staffing from 12 to more than 1,000 and have boosted server capacity more than tenfold to accommodate the high demand. 

He said they’ve also waived restrictions like a minimum income threshold, a waiting week and the requirement to be actively looking for work. 

The federal government is providing funding to Kentucky to cover the unemployment expansion, including the benefits to newly eligible categories of workers, as well as an additional $600 a week and the additional 13 weeks of available benefits. How much that amounts to "is a moving target," Henderson said. "It is based upon the number of individuals that qualify for expanded UI benefits."

The Bigger Picture

Dustin Pugel, senior policy analyst with the think tank Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, is glad the state expanded unemployment to contractors, gig economy workers and self-employed during the pandemic. He and his colleagues put together a response about changes they felt needed to be made to the UI system during the pandemic, which they sent to state lawmakers. 

“Hopefully we're also beginning to understand that they are an integral part of the economy and we can't leave them behind when the economy tanks,” Pugel said. “I really hope that we take it more seriously in the future and find ways to incorporate them more as full participants of the labor force.”

The Greater Louisville Arts & Culture Alliance and Fund for the Arts estimates that the local arts and culture sector puts about $462.5 million dollars back into the economy every year and provides more than 17,000 jobs

And there’s the intangible value of the arts. 

“We need food, we need housing, but we also need to feed our souls,” Fund for the Arts president and CEO Christen Boone said in a recent Facebook Live discussion hosted by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer 

Trying To Plan For The Unexpected

Before the pandemic, actor and teaching artist Emily Vergason thought she had planned for the uncertainty.

“My survival job is at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, which also, of course, has been shut down,” Vergason said.

Vergason works as a part-time customer service rep with the center so she always had some money coming in, even if acting opportunities were slim. She went from “having three jobs to no jobs at all,” and applied for unemployment around March 16.

“I got up at like the crack of dawn because I heard that people were having a hard time even getting the website to load,” Vergason said.  

On her application she simply put down that she lost work because of the pandemic.

“I spent weeks trying to call, trying to log on and find out more information,” she said. “I kept posting on my Facebook page, like, does anyone know anyone that works in unemployment and can answer some questions for me.” 

Recently she learned she did get approved, but only for her W-2 work at the Kentucky Center. Vergason said she’ll get by OK on those funds. 

She just hopes she can return to the theater someday, that we all can return to theaters, museums and concert halls someday.

“I’m just taking it day by day,” Vergason said.