SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Small business owners in Savannah want their questions answered as they seek assistance through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.
As many restaurants and gyms slowly reopen, some businesses in other industries continue to face uncertainties about when they will resume operations.
WSAV.com NOW spoke to some small business owners who have already determined whether they’ll receive federal assistance for their business.
Now, they’re just hoping to get some help for themselves — and that’s where the PUA benefits come into play.
PUA benefits serve as a form of unemployment since those who are self-employed are traditionally not allowed to file for unemployment.
After applying, some small business owners, like Jeff Brown of All About You Entertainment, feel the process to apply for PUA has been complicated and are frustrated that questions have gone unanswered for weeks.
“It shouldn’t be this difficult to get a little bit of help,” said Brown.
Understanding the options
As of last week, the state of Georgia has issued over $2 billion in unemployment payouts since the pandemic began.
Still, many have been waiting for their applications to be approved or for their benefits to start rolling in.
Some self-employed workers who spoke to WSAV.com NOW say the newly developed PUA program lacks clarity and have turned to one another to find answers.
Cynthia Creighton-Jones is the owner of Cape Creations Catering and the York Diner off of Ogeechee Road. She says all of her events from March 13 until August have been canceled, leaving her without any income over the last several weeks.
“It’s been tough,” said Creighton-Jones. “Not only is the business not bringing in any money but also in my household, I’m not bringing in any money.”
It wasn’t until she learned about the PUA program through a Facebook group of fellow Savannah restaurants and caterers that she learned assistance options were available to her.
According to the Georgia Department of Labor’s (GDOL) website, PUA benefits were created to help those who are “self-employed, gig workers, 1099 independent contractors, employees of churches, employees of non-profits, or those with limited work history who do not qualify for state unemployment benefits.”
Creighton-Jones applied for PUA about three weeks ago and is still waiting to hear back on whether she’s been accepted and if she’ll receive payments.
“I have not bothered to call anybody [at GDOL] because I have heard that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get through,” said Creighton-Jones.
Brown, whose company provides music and photo booths at weddings and other events, began the application process in mid-March for him and his wife, who works with him.
He says he had a difficult time applying because the website kept crashing; he was on hold for hours at a time and no one has responded to his emails with questions about the process as well as the timeline for the payments.
“If this assistance is out there and people are telling you, ‘Hey, you’re a small business you should get it. Ask for it,'” said Brown. “So I figured I’d try and to jump through all these hoops has been really difficult.”
Brown was approved for PUA, received what he describes as two payments of two different amounts last week from GDOL, and has not received any new payments since then.
A letter he received from GDOL says his PUA claim is valid beginning on March 1, 2020, until December 26, 2020.
He says the letter does not specify when he’ll receive the payments weekly and if each payment will be a set amount.
After speaking with Brown and Creighton-Jones, WSAV.com NOW reached out to the GDOL to get answers about the process and learn more about the program.
In general, labor officials wanted to make sure those applying for PUA benefits request to receive the payments. If not, they will not see any money come in even if they’ve been approved in the program.
Officials from GDOL say an increase in applications for the program and an influx of calls about where payments may be is what has caused the phone lines to be busy.
Individual claims thus far are also taking between five to seven weeks to be completed, according to Kersha Cartwright from the GDOL.
Cartwright responded to specific questions from WSAV.com NOW:
Q: How does an applicant know the amount of money they’re eligible to receive?
A: The weekly benefit amount is based on wages someone would normally be earning.
Q: Do all applicants receive a flat rate or does the amount vary based on the applicant’s need? A: The amount varies from $149-$365.
Q: What is the primary form of communication between an applicant and GDOL? (Email, physical mail, etc.)
A: An applicant will receive emails and letters in the mail.
Q: How can an applicant get in touch with the GDOL if they have issues or questions?
A: We are encouraging applicants to check online for answers before reaching out to us on email or by phone. We are updating our website and social media platforms daily. We also continuously update our Chatbot on our website with frequently asked questions.
Q: Once an applicant is told they’re eligible to receive benefits, are the payments retroactive – meaning do the payments make up for the time an applicant went without payment before the state determined they were eligible?
A: Applicants are eligible for payments for all weeks back to when his/her business was negatively impacted by COVID-19.
Q: Is the money from PUA automatically taxed once an applicant receives it or is it taxed later?
A: All unemployment benefits are considered taxable income. Applicants can elect to have taxes taken out now or opt to pay them later.
Cartwright said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of any individual applicant cases without knowing the details of the case.
Plans for reopening are uncertain for both business owners as they say they make their decisions based on safety.
“There’s no end in sight,” said Brown. “There’s no date we can all look forward to as being the end or when this starts or that starts.”
Brown says getting assistance is so important because he doesn’t know when large group events will be allowed again.
“It’s been tough trying to navigate through this,” said Brown. “There are so many different restrictions on things we’re not even sure what we can do.”
Creighton-Jones says she’s keeping a close eye on how the situation changes day-by-day but still plans on opening up the diner again on June 1.
She also says they’ve made plans in case a team member does contract COVID-19 once they reopen.
“You don’t know if someone is going to come down with COVID-19 and you don’t want to close down your whole operation again after just having opened,” said Creighton-Jones.