The United States Department of Labor has issued instructions regarding the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. PUA provides benefits to individuals not eligible for regular unemployment insurance or extended benefits under state or federal law, including people who have exhausted rights to such benefits. Covered individuals include self-employed, persons seeking part-time employment, persons lacking sufficient work history, and persons who otherwise do not qualify for regular unemployment insurance or extended benefits under state or federal law.
Individuals lacking sufficient work history means they have a recent attachment to the work force, do not have sufficient wages in the last 18 months to establish a claim for regular unemployment insurance, and who because unemployed for one of the COVID-19 related reasons listed below. Self-employed individuals include independent contractors, gig economy workers, and workers for certain religious institutions.
PUA is not payable to persons who can telework with pay or who are receiving paid sick leave or other paid leave benefits. Persons receiving paid sick leave or other paid leave in an amount less than their customary work may be eligible for PUA but their PUA benefit will be reduced by the amount received in sick leave or other paid leave. Individuals teleworking for less then what they worked prior to COVID-19 are eligible for PUA but their PUA benefit will be reduced by the amount of their work income.
PUA provides up to 39 weeks of benefits for persons otherwise able and available for work except that they are unemployed, partially employed or unable or unavailable to work because of one of the following COVID-19 related reasons:
- The individual has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
- A member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- The individual is providing care for a family member or a member of the individual’s household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. An individual is providing care if it requires ongoing and constant attention that the ability to perform other work functions is severely limited;
- A child or other person in the household for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency and such school or facility care is required for the individual to work. This includes an individual who could telework, but the provision of care to the child or other person requires such ongoing and constant attention that it is not possible for the individual to perform work at home;
- The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency. This includes inability to reach place of employment because doing so would violate a state or municipal travel restriction;
- The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because the individual has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19. This includes an individual whose immune system is compromised by a serious health condition and has been advised by a health-care provider to self-quarantine because of greater than average risk of coronavirus infection.
- The individual was scheduled to commence employment and does not have a job or is unable to reach the job as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency;
- The individual has become the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19.
- The individual has to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19;
- The individual’s place of employment is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
- Additional criteria established by the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary has determined that individuals who work as independent contractors with reportable income may qualify for PUA if they are unemployed, partially employed or unable or unavailable to work because COVID-19 has severely limited their ability to continue performing their customary work activities and as thereby forced the individual to suspend such activities. For example, a ridesharing service driver who is forced to suspend operations as a direct result of COVID-19 can be eligible for PUA.
Applicants must self-certify that they are able and available for work except for being unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable to work or unavailable for work because of one of the above categories. States would consider that many of these qualifying circumstances are temporary. For example, people exposed to COVID-19 may be able to return to work after a period of time, and a school is not considered closed because of COVID-19 after the date the school year was originally scheduled to end.
The benefit amount is computed based on a base period of the most recent tax year that has ended for the individual prior to the individual’s unemployment that was a direct result of the major disaster. Earnings for the base period will be the net income on the applicant’s tax return. If the applicant did not file a tax return, they must provide documentation of wages earned. If the applicant cannot provide such documentation, the claim will be denied. Regardless of the amount of wages earned, the minimum benefit payment is 50% of the average weekly payment for the state.
PUA benefits are payable starting January 27, 2020. Benefits stop for any week ending after December 31, 2020.
States must verify that individuals do not have regular unemployment insurance eligibility before granting PUA. If the individual is ineligible for regular unemployment insurance because there are insufficient covered wages or the individual has an active unemployment insurance claim with a definite or indefinite disqualification, then the state does not need to require the individual to file a regular unemployment insurance claim. If the individual’s eligibility for regular unemployment insurance is questionable, then the state must first require the individual to file a regular unemployment insurance claim, and if the individual is found ineligible then the state can consider PUA eligibility. (Unemployment Insurance Program Letter No. 16-20, April 5, 2020.)