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Ihlenfeld seeks help for those in ‘gig economy’

Ihlenfeld

WHEELING — West Virginia Sen. William Ihlenfeld sees contract workers in the “gig economy” and small businesses getting left behind as traditional workers become eligible for unemployment and other benefits during the coronavirus crisis.

Small business owners need assistance as well, and Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, is suggesting using West Virginia’s rainy day fund to set up a fund to assist those who will “fall through” the cracks.

Those working in the “gig economy” are typically those working independently under temporary contracts with employers. These can include at-home software designers, Uber drivers, musicians and other artists who work freelance. Many are not working and have lost expected income with many businesses closed or reducing costs.

Ihlenfeld has sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice asking that a fund be created to “provide for low wage service industry independent contractors with basic income” who are “otherwise ineligible for unemployment compensation, and who are now struggling to pay their rent, make a car payment or buy groceries.”

This fund could be considered by the legislature during any upcoming special session Justice might call to deal with items pertaining to the coronavirus crisis, according to Ihlenfeld.

“We need to set up a similar fund for small businesses,” he said. “While some will receive help from the federal government, many will not, and they need our help right away.

“Business owners throughout the state are under tremendous pressure right now to meet payroll and other obligations and they can’t afford to wait for Congress to act.”

Ihlenfeld said there likely are a number of people in the state who have multiple independent jobs. They may do free-lance work during the week, then tend bar on the weekends. These people don’t qualify for unemployment benefits in West Virginia or other states.

“We’re a little bit different than New York or California in that we don’t have a lot of freelance artists, or (people) who are driving for Uber or for Lyft,” he said. “I’m worried those people won’t be able to make their rent, buy groceries if we don’t do something more.

“These are low-wage, independent contractors who need help getting through the crisis we are in.”

Ihlenfeld said while the federal government is working on some bills to assist all workers, but he isn’t certain what financial help would be available to the independent workers and small business owners. He wants to make certain there is assistance available to them in West Virginia.

“It also helps the economy,” he said. “When you put money into the pockets of people, it is not as if they are going to keep that money. They are going to spend it, buy their groceries, pay their rent … they are going to put that money back in to the local economies here in West Virginia.

“It’s a way to stimulate the economy in the state at the same time we are helping these people who are struggling to get by.”

West Virginia’s rainy day fund presently has a balance of $865 million, and could be used for the establishment of a fund to assist those not qualifying for traditional unemployment benefits, according to Ihlenfeld.

“I would also like to see the legislature consider the establishment of a fund to assist small businesses, who are also struggling during this time period we are in,” he said.

“One of the challenges of this is we don’t know how long this will last. But I would like to see something set aside for small businesses.”

(King can be contacted at jking@theintelligencer.net)

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