The Department of Labor has expanded eligibility for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and it will allow those already on unemployment to keep their benefits if they turn down jobs due to COVID safety concerns. The changes are retroactive, so you could qualify for a nice lump sum in late March. Here’s what you need to know.
Created as part of the CARES Act, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program temporarily expands unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers impacted by the pandemic. To qualify, you have to state under penalty of perjury that you’re available for work and that you’re unemployed due to a COVID-related situation.
Following a directive from President Biden last month, the Department of Labor has clarified and expanded PUA eligibility for workers under the following scenarios:
- Workers who are already receiving unemployment benefits but turn down work with a potential employer because they don’t comply with local or state COVID safety standards such as social distancing, mask wearing or personal protective equipment.
- Workers who have been laid off or had hours reduced because their employer has closed or partially closed due to COVID.
- School workers without a contract who have no assurance of continued pay when schools are closed due to the pandemic.
The benefits will be retroactive, and will apply as if they had been included from the beginning of the PUA program. However, individuals filing their first PUA claim after Dec. 27, 2020, are limited to weeks of unemployment beginning on or after Dec. 6, 2020.
Considering that those on unemployment receive a $300 weekly federal top-up to their state benefits which average about $320 a week, the retroactive aid could result in a large lump sum payment near the end of March (the Department of Labor says that state agencies will need a few weeks to implement the changes). For first time filers, the first payment would amount to about four months of benefits.
“Until now, many workers have faced a devil’s bargain, risk coronavirus infection, or choose some level of safety and live without income support,” says Suzi Levine, principal deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training, in an interview with Reuters.
How to apply
You’ll need to file a claim with the unemployment insurance program in the state where you worked (search by state here). Depending on the state, claims may be filed in person, by telephone, or online.