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Nevada gig workers sue state for promised US jobless funds

May 13, 2020 GMT

LAS VEGAS (AP) — With Nevada the only U.S. state not taking applications for federal coronavirus relief payments to gig workers, two self-employed single mothers in Reno are suing to force the state to begin paying thousands of out-of-work people the more than $600 a week Congress promised.

“Congress said do it. Nevada isn’t doing it,” said Mark Thierman, an attorney who filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Reno seeking class-action status and a judge’s order for the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation to start accepting applications from self-employed people, independent contractors and sole proprietors.

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“Get the web page up and running so gig people can file their claims,” Thierman said Wednesday. “Administer it. Get these people their money. They’re desperate.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office and an unemployment department spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to questions about the lawsuit.

Heather Korbulic, the interim Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation chief named in the lawsuit, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal for a Tuesday report that she understands people are frustrated. She cited the complexity of starting an application system from scratch and said the department hopes to have it operating by Memorial Day.

“What we’re trying to achieve in a couple of months is something that under normal circumstances would likely take about a year,” she told the newspaper. “We have contracted with a vendor, who has deployed this technology in several other states.”

Thierman’s clients — licensed massage therapist Amethyst Payne and Iris Podesta-Mireles, a strip club dancer and bartender — were among thousands of people idled eight weeks ago, when the governor closed casinos and businesses deemed non-essential to prevent people from congregating and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.

Dmitri Koustas, a University of Chicago researcher charting disbursal of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds nationally, said it wasn’t clear why Nevada was last to enact the program. Arizona began its program Wednesday, and Hawaii is taking applications and is close to processing or paying them, he said.

The coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress in March provided for payments to self-employed people who are ineligible for regular unemployment benefits. Koustas said that in Nevada, recipients should receive about $185 plus the additional $600 per week.

Separately, the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation announced that federal emergency funds were kicking in to extend unemployment payments for an additional 13 weeks for idled workers who have exhausted regular benefits.

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The program is slated to end in late December. Recipients also will keep receiving the $600 weekly payment, officials said.

The announcement came two weeks after the state said the wave of ongoing jobless benefits passed a trigger point to extend payments for another 13 weeks and the state jobless figure spiked to 19.9%.

New jobless numbers are expected Thursday.

The governor’s office announced Tuesday that even though some businesses are reopening, people filing for unemployment won’t be required to search for work in order to collect benefits.

The work search requirement will remain waived until further notice, the governor said.

Restaurants, hair salons and some other businesses that closed or reduced operations in mid-March began reopening Saturday, letting reduced numbers of customers inside. Casinos, nightclubs, spas and gyms remain closed, along with movie theaters, bowling alleys, community centers, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and brothels.

Almost 6,400 people in Nevada have tested positive for the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus, and at least 321 have died, state health officials reported Wednesday.

Most people with the virus experience symptoms such as fever and cough for up to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems can face severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority recover.

In other developments:

— Las Vegas-area health and elected officials said Wednesday that Hispanic and African American community members make up a high number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the region. Southern Nevada Health District chief Dr. Fermin Leguen said Latinos account for 27% of positive tests locally. District data shows blacks account for almost 11% of positive tests and non-Hispanic whites, 24%.

— Lawmakers on the Interim Finance Committee unanimously voted Wednesday to declare a budget state of emergency, clearing the way for Sisolak and lawmakers to tap up to $400 million in the state’s rainy day savings fund. Russell Guindon, a state budget analyst, said that with casinos closed since mid-March, the state could lose $160 million in expected gambling tax revenues this budget year. Casino taxes are second to sales taxes as the largest source of state tax revenue.

— Station Casinos announced it will test all employees before they return to work once casinos are allowed to reopen in the state. Station Casinos said it would give workers an antigen test that looks for protein traces of the virus and test for antibodies in people’s blood, indicating a past infection. The operator of casinos in and around Las Vegas said it has already started the free testing at six properties.

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Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.