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COVID + Credit: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the CARES Act and You

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is a key aspect of the 2020 CARES Act. Learn how it provides relief to unemployed Americans. [Duration: 2:55]

Reading time: 5 minutes

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is a key part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved by Congress in late March. It has provided some much-needed financial relief for many people whose jobs have been impacted by the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic.

While U.S. unemployment numbers skyrocketed early in the pandemic, more than one million Americans are still losing their jobs and filing first-time unemployment claims each week.

Because wading through federal legislation can get confusing, we’ve broken down whom PUA helps, how much money you could potentially receive if you lose your job and how to apply for this special unemployment assistance. It’s important to note that PUA access is highly dependent on what state you’re in, so check with your state’s labor department for information about your specific situation.

Q: What is PUA and what does it provide?

A: PUA is a form of government aid intended to expand access to unemployment relief for Americans who have lost jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. PUA aims to broaden who is eligible to receive unemployment benefits, lengthen the amount of time that applicants can receive aid and, in some cases, increase the amount of money provided to recipients.

Under the CARES Act, states are permitted to extend unemployment benefits by up to 13 weeks under the new Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program. PEUC benefits are available for weeks of unemployment beginning after your state implements the new program and ending on or before December 31, 2020.

Q: Who is eligible for PUA?

A: Most workers who have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic are eligible for PUA. According to the CARES Act, you typically qualify if:

  • You are sick with Covid-19 or have been exposed to the Coronavirus and cannot work
  • You have to care for anyone in your immediate family who has contracted the Coronavirus and cannot work

You may also qualify if you are prevented from working because of a quarantine, or if you are in a high-risk group and a medical professional has recommended that you self-quarantine. However, you are unlikely to be eligible for PUA if you are able to work remotely and continue to receive a paycheck from your employer.

Q: Do self-employed people qualify for PUA?

A: Generally, yes. However, PUA access varies by state. In many states, as long as you are not eligible for regular unemployment benefits and are unable to work because of Covid-19, you usually qualify for PUA.

For self-employed workers and independent contractors, PUA offers up to 39 weeks of benefits, some of which may be available retroactively starting with weeks of unemployment beginning on or after January 27, 2020, and ending on or before December 31, 2020. The amount of money self-employed individuals may receive varies by state and is based on prior benefit amounts under your state’s unemployment laws.

Q: Do gig economy workers qualify?

A: Generally, yes. However, you should check with your state’s labor department for more specific information. The CARES Act states that gig economy workers — such as rideshare drivers, and food and grocery delivery workers — may qualify for PUA if they are unable to work because of the pandemic. For example, if a gig economy worker is unable to work after becoming sick with Covid-19 or after developing complications following recovery from Covid-19, they may qualify for PUA.

Additionally, they may qualify if they lose most of their customers due to government-recommended social distancing or if municipal orders restrict movement in a way that makes their business unsustainable.

Q: How do you apply?

A: You can file a claim with your state’s unemployment insurance program as soon as you become unemployed. Every state has an individual process for determining who qualifies for PUA, which may include filing a regular (as opposed to a PUA-specific) unemployment claim first.

You may file a claim in any state where you have worked, which can be done over the phone, online or in person, depending on the state. PUA benefits also vary considerably from state to state, so if you worked in multiple states, you might consider the benefits of each state when choosing where to file your claim. The unemployment agency in the state where you currently live can provide information on how to file for unemployment benefits in other states.

It is also important that you fill out the claim carefully because any errors could delay the process and prevent you from receiving your benefits on time.

Q: How much money will I receive?

A: Your compensation will vary based on a number of factors, including how much you previously earned while working and the unemployment insurance laws of the state in which you live. For example, the minimum amount you can receive weekly in Alabama is $114, whereas in Hawaii it’s $263.

However, if you qualify for PUA, you are guaranteed a weekly benefit of $600 from the federal government as part of the CARES Act, through July 2020. You will receive this amount on top of your state benefits, regardless of how much they end up being. Note that all unemployment benefits are still subject to federal income taxes and most state income taxes.

Q: When will I receive my aid?

A: Timing also varies by state. Additionally, many states are currently overwhelmed with the massive surge in unemployment claims, so expect a delay.

Q: Can I quit my job to get PUA?

A: In most cases, no. PUA is intended to support workers who have lost employment through no fault of their own. Quitting your job to receive PUA or any other unemployment benefits is considered fraud.

However, the CARES Act stipulates that you may still qualify if you resign for a reason directly related to Covid-19. This does not include leaving your employer because you are afraid of contracting Covid-19 at work, although it may include quitting because a medical professional has determined you are a high-risk individual and should self-quarantine. 

It’s also important to note that the CARES Act states that anyone receiving regular unemployment compensation must accept any offer of suitable employment. For example, if you were furloughed when your place of employment closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, you generally must go back to work once your employer reopens. Failure to do so may result in termination of any PUA benefits you are receiving.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a difficult time for most Americans, but PUA can potentially help alleviate some of the financial stress. Since every state is implementing PUA differently, be sure to check with your state about their specific PUA process. You can find the contact information for your state unemployment insurance office here.

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