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Millions out of work, economists claiming different story – here’s the lowdown on the ‘hidden’ gig economy

POCATELLO, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - The clock is ticking, leaving millions of unemployed Americans nervously waiting to see if their federal relief will suddenly lapse.

Federal lawmakers have until December 31st to renew two programs under the CARES Act — The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program.

A whopping 13.5 million people are relying on one of these two programs, and just to put this into perspective - the population of the entire state of Idaho is nearly 1.78 million people, which is a mere fraction of the people relying on these programs. Still doesn’t hit home? This is about three times the population of Los Angeles, which is the second largest city in the US.

The number of workers who have been unemployed thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic rose by 40 percent to 21 million people by November, according to the US Labor Department.

The country is seeing unprecedented unemployment numbers, which keeps getting worse as most of the world is now entering a second, stricter lockdown and Idaho is one of several states rolling-back its reopening stages.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Robert Wardlow said, after he was laid-off from his company in Pocatello in June.

Since we are unable to obtain a statement from his former company, we will not name them in this article.

Like millions others, Wardlow immediately started applying for jobs in an unforgiving economy.

The Labor Department shows Wardlow is one of the 19.5 million Americans who were out of a job in September after the pandemic caused their employer to close-up shop. This is actually down from the 24.2 million in August.

Without much luck and a family at home who needed the income, he decided to turn his carpentry skills into a career.

In fact, he makes-up an extremely large population of Americans who were forced to do this exact thing after the pandemic left them jobless - turning their passions and side-hustles into their soul-source of income, known as the gig economy.

But it’s nearly impossible to determine how many people actually make-up the gig economy right now since most of them don’t have to file applications or jump through all of the same federal or state ‘red tape’ most traditional business owners need to do first.

“Someone could make that decision in their bedroom, they become a ‘gig worker’, and they fly under the radar,” Small Business Development Center regional director Ann Swanson said. “Those folks can be in business without doing anything more than just deciding to be.”

Swanson added, the PEUC and PUC benefits are mainly for those who have already been running some sort of business before the pandemic sent them in a financial spiral.

“So, none of that money is earmarked for new businesses at all,” she added.

This means newcomers forced to be a part of the gig economy to keep their families fed, such as Wardlow, are not counted in the 13.5 million people relying on those federal dollars.

Not only that, Wardlow didn’t even apply for any sort of financial help since he realized his time not spent finding new jobs is costing him more than what the government could offer.

After Wardlow is hired to build a new porch or lay tiles, he’s out of a job until he can find someone else who needs his handiwork.

But he still went above and beyond and filled-out all of the proper paperwork to make sure Unique Construction, LLC can operate as a proper company, and has since already hired two employees, whom he made sure he could provide medical insurance benefits.

Most people don’t go to those limits, but he tapped into his 401K benefits and made the decision to turn this company into something that will last for years.

“It’s a lot of work and it gets expensive. It seems like (sic) every new job I get, I have to buy a new tool,” Wardlow said. “I got out $35,000 to buy my trailer and tools and now I think I’m down to just $7,000.”

So we’re seeing a record number of people out of work, and what could be an even larger, unprecedented number of gig workers who are unaccounted for, yet economists continue to claim our unemployment numbers are lowering.

Something’s not adding-up.

Swanson said her department was also bewildered to not see a huge influx in new applications after southeastern Idaho was hit by pandemic’s economic fallout.

“Typically, when there’s a shock in the economy, the real fallout for small businesses doesn’t happen for another 12 to 18 months,” Swanson pointed-out.

So, in areas such as southeastern Idaho, lower-wage workers have been hit the hardest by lay-offs, in terms of how many jobs have been lost, and at the same time, are the slowest to bounce-back.

While this is happening, larger companies such as Amazon, are able to hire workers and even open new facilities (such as the one slated to open this season in the Twin Falls area), as smaller companies continue to cut jobs and side-hustles continue to struggle as the demand for goods and services just isn’t there.

The result is exactly what we’re seeing: a job market being pulled in two different directions at the same time and economists telling a different story than what your neighbors and friends are struggling to deal with in the field.

Swanson stresses, those looking to start their own business should seek the free advice and expertise of the Small Business Development Center. In case you missed that, I’ll say it again - it’s free.

“We offer bookkeeping help, financial statement assistance, and we now have a CPA on staff to answer your tax questions as well as an e-commerce web developer,” Swanson said. “We have a lot of resources for small businesses or anyone looking to start one, and it’s all taxpayer funded.”

Here’s her phone number: (208) 282-4402 and click here for the website.

Here’s Robert Wardlow’s contact information if you’re looking to get ahold of Unique Construction, LLC: (208) 269-8445.

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Kaitlin Miklos

Kaitlin is an anchor and reporter for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.


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