So we’re about a month into strip clubs being shut down. Before that, most in-person sex workers had already been worried about the potential of getting or spreading COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus) at work, and probably noticed a significant dip in business. Most times we’d be SOL when it comes to accessing unemployment benefits, since save for dancers at a handful of strip clubs, we’re not employees on payroll. But that changed when Congress passed the CARES Act in March, which expanded unemployment benefits to independent contractors.
There have been a lot of misleading screenshots and headlines implying that sex workers are excluded from pandemic relief. While it’s true that some adult entertainment businesses are theoretically excluded from the Small Business Administration’s disaster loans, sex workers as workers are just as eligible for stimulus payments and the expanded unemployment assistance that’s out there as any worker. Even if you’ve been operating as a business, you’re eligible as a sole proprietor to apply for unemployment now (Unfortunately, that only goes for citizens and permanent residents. If you are an undocumented worker in need of help, there are a lot of sex worker mutual aid funds that are prioritizing workers who can’t access government aid. Here are a few lists of those funds and resources for finding help. This COVID-19 resource post from Kate D’Adamo on Slixa also has information on other types of help available for all workers, as well as some myth busting on those Small Business Administration loans—you can still apply, and though there’s a chance you’ll be denied, you might just get it. “The definition of that term [“prurient sexual performance”] is based on the application of what’s called the Miller obscenity test,” D’adamo writes, “and a lot of things are actually fine – sex shops, sex educators, probably even strip clubs. Where it gets trying is anything involving the internet, because of competing court decisions that the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on.” D’adamo also notes that the whole process is a “clusterfuck” because banks don’t have enough information from the Fed to process applications, and “no one’s getting shit from anyone anytime soon, prurient sex-related or not.”)
There are two main types of assistance for individuals available: The one-time $1200 ($2400 for married couples and an additional $500 per child) Economic Impact Payments from the federal government, and the expanded unemployment benefits that cover the self-employed. Unemployment benefits are administered at the state level, so you’ll need to find your state’s unemployment website to start a claim. Maybe you’ve heard that the pandemic levels of unemployment have swamped unemployment claims? It’s not a great process to begin with, and having to revamp the whole deal hasn’t gone quickly or smoothly. But it’s a good idea to go ahead and start on the process. Supposedly workers will be able to get back payments, so try to get records of everything you can dating back to when you had to stop working due to the pandemic.
Here’s how to get started.
How do I get my $1200?
Did you file a tax return for 2018 and/or 2019? Then it’s on its way. You can track it on the IRS website here, and if your address or bank deposit information has changed since you filed, you’ll want to update that on the site as well.
Didn’t file for 2018 or 2019? Go ahead and do that. With the caveat that THIS IS NOT PROFESSIONAL ADVICE AND IF YOU NEED THAT PLEASE CONSULT A TAX PROFESSIONAL, it is not a huge deal if you haven’t filed for a while. If you end up owing money and can’t pay right now, you can set up payment plans and still get a check. If you need some basic tax info, here’s a couple of old posts that have some sex worker tax basics. Just try to get your income and expense records together as best as you can—bank statements, notes in your calendar, texts about great and terrible shifts, whatever you have that will let you reconstruct the last couple of years for your returns.
Here are your free filing options: If you made under $12,200 before taxes (this is likely true if you are getting food stamps or Medicaid or other types of government assistance) you can go here to get your check.
The IRS website has a list of free filing options if you made more than that. Most of them are pretty easy to figure out if you are a W-2 employee. If you are filing a Schedule C to take self-employment deductions, the Free Tax USA site offers free filing for that. If any of those sites where you’re trying to file for free tries to upcharge you, skip out and look for another! There’s no reason to pay for this (unless it really seems more convenient to do so, I guess). Bear in mind that if you live in a state with state income tax and will also be applying for unemployment, you probably want to file a state return as well.
How do I get unemployment benefits?
The CARES act expanded unemployment coverage to independent contractors and the self-employed. Since unemployment is administered at the state level, your experience applying for this as a self-employed person will depend on when and how your state gets it together. But you should definitely file. Both employee and independent contractor workers are eligible for the $600/week Pandemic Unemployment Assistance regardless of how much they’re eligible for in regular weekly benefits.
Most sex workers fall into one of these three main categories:
Independent contractor making money through working in or through a larger business: This includes strippers working at clubs, online workers who receive payments through cam, chat or clip/photo sale platforms and workers who work through a third-party agency or business like a lingerie modeling studio, massage business, dungeon, or escort agency. The reason you are out of work is because your club was closed down or you can’t go to work because of the outbreak.
Sole proprietor/small business: You might be an independent escort, findomme, or porn performer. You might have separate business bank accounts and are possibly incorporated or an LLC. You don’t rely on one or even a handful of businesses or platforms to make a living. The reason you have lost work is because the outbreak has greatly reduced business or you have stopped working to protect your health.
Employee working for a business: Mostly this will be strippers working at clubs where dancers are on payroll. The reason you are out of work is because your employer had to close / lay off workers due to the pandemic.
Soldiers of Pole has a guide to every state’s unemployment information that is helpful for all sex workers, even those who are definitely not employees. (There’s a lot of states where dancers would have a really good chance at getting unemployment if they filed for it as misclassified workers, which is part of what SOP is urging dancers to do, but with the extension of unemployment to contractors, there’s less of a need to 1) first get your state’s labor department to determine you were misclassified before 2) making a determination that you’re eligible for employee benefits that include unemployment. This extension of benefits to all workers is an interesting development if you’ve been observing the worker misclassification issue with strip clubs and came away thinking that extending worker protections to all workers would be more useful than trying to get industries that depend on independent contractors to convert their workers to employees!)
Workers in all three of these scenarios are eligible for unemployment. If you are an employee, it’s going to be a pretty self-explanatory process on your state’s unemployment site. If you are an independent contractor or a sole proprietor, you may need to have some other proof of losing income on hand, but since most states are still rolling out this process, we just don’t know how that’s going to work yet. They’ll likely be wanting some kind of proof that you lost work due to the virus, which means you will need some way to prove you were working at a club that was closed due to the pandemic. We don’t know what they’ll be asking for, but it’s possible that things like club contracts or a schedule with your dancer name on it would suffice. Maybe letters from sympathetic managers? If you’re an escort, this gets a bit murkier and will depend on how you’ve been defining your job in your previous filings. If you’re calling yourself an “entertainer” the way many escorts do, for example, then you may want to obtain a letter from a client which says something like, “I can no longer book this entertainer because of COVID-19.” There’s probably going to be some creative things happening here, so try to think of all the ways you can prove you worked somewhere/did something that was disrupted by the pandemic.
If you are applying for unemployment, make sure to find out how your state is handling back payments. You should have a chance to ask for a check for every week that you have been out of work. If they have a bunch of explanatory videos or fact sheets on their websites, read and watch those. Ask your friends who have been through unemployment before to help. Ask us! If you live somewhere like Florida, they’re deliberately trying to make this shit hard so that you don’t get this money. Don’t give up! A Deja Vu is suing the federal government over that SBA loan; do you think if they get one that dancers will see even one dollar? No! So let’s make sure we get what we can.