More than 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in March 2020—some 6.6 million of them in the week ending March 28 alone. In April 2020, the unemployment rate soared to 14.7%, “the highest rate and the largest over-the-month increase in the history of the data (available back to January 1948),” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The number of unemployed persons rose by 15.9 million to 23.1 million in April.”
To put that into perspective, the unemployment rate hit 10% just once during the Great Recession of 2008, the last major financial crisis to grip the United States. The numbers were the most dire since the Great Depression.
Millions of out-of-work Americans depended on unemployment insurance (UI) to help cover rent, groceries, and other expenses. Several new programs were created to help alleviate some of the economic pain caused by COVID-19, thanks to a $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus package called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that then-President Donald Trump signed into law on March 27, 2020.
The CARES Act expanded unemployment insurance benefits to many workers affected by COVID-19 through three key programs: the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program. Here is a look at these programs and how they helped unemployed Americans affected by coronavirus.
- The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expanded unemployment insurance benefits to many workers affected by COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, through three key programs.
- The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program provided an extra $600 weekly benefit on top of your regular unemployment insurance (UI) if you couldn’t work due to COVID-19.
- The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program expanded UI eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
- The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program extended UI benefits for an extra 13 weeks.
- Most states recommended applying for UI benefits online.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC)
The CARES Act established the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program to boost benefits for out-of-work Americans. Under this new program, eligible people who collected certain unemployment insurance benefits—including regular unemployment compensation—got an extra $600 in federal benefits each week through July 31, 2020. After a series of extensions, the program expired on Sept. 6, 2021. In total, an additional 40 weeks were added to the original 13 weeks of extended benefits.
FPUC was a flat amount given to people who were receiving unemployment insurance, including those who got a partial unemployment benefit check. This program also applied to people who received benefits under the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which covered freelancers, independent contractors, and gig workers (see below).
Under the CARES Act, states that waived their usual one-week waiting period for benefits were fully reimbursed by the federal government for benefits paid that week, plus any associated administrative expenses.
Applying for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation
To apply for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, people had to file a claim for regular benefits with the UI program in the state where they worked. Depending on the state, they could file a claim in person, online, or over the phone. When they filed a claim, they had to provide their Social Security number, contact information, and details about their former employment.
Under the FPUC program, states administered an extra $600 weekly payment to eligible people who were receiving regular unemployment benefits (including Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees and Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Servicemembers), as well those collecting benefits from the following programs:
- Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)
- Extended benefits
- Short-Time Compensation
- Trade Readjustment Allowances
- Disaster Unemployment Assistance
- Payment under the Self-Employment Assistance program
Due to the massive number of people trying to apply for UI benefits, many states’ UI websites crashed or were very slow. Applicants were advised to watch for updates on the program website, and to be aware that many states had indicated they would backdate claims to the date when applicants first became unemployed.
As the program launched, most states were still waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor to implement the program (and the other two programs as well). As states started to provide the extra payment, eligible people received retroactive payments. The payments dated back to the applicant’s eligibility date or the date when their state signed an agreement to provide the benefits—whichever was later. All states had executed agreements with the U.S. Department of Labor as of March 28, 2020.
FPUC, PUA, and PEUC were fully federally funded programs. States also received additional administrative funds to operate these programs.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program temporarily extended unemployment benefits to eligible self-employed workers, including:
- Freelancers and independent contractors
- Workers seeking part-time work
- Workers who don’t have a long-enough work history to qualify for state unemployment insurance benefits
- Workers who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for benefits under state or federal law
The program expired on Sept. 6, 2021, along with other employment-related programs that provided COVID relief.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Eligibility
To be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, applicants had to provide self-certification that they were able to work and available for work, and that they were unemployed, partially employed, or unable or unavailable to work due to one of these COVID-19-related situations:
- They have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have symptoms of it and are trying to get diagnosed
- A member of their household has been diagnosed with COVID-19
- They are providing care for someone diagnosed with COVID-19
- They are providing care for a child or other household member who can’t go to school or work because it’s closed due to COVID-19
- They are quarantined or have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine
- They were scheduled to start a job and don’t have a job or can’t reach the job due to COVID-19
- They have become the primary earner for a household because the head of household has died as a direct result of COVID-19
- They had to quit their job as a direct result of COVID-19
- Their place of employment has closed as a direct result of COVID-19
- They meet other criteria set forth by the Secretary of Labor
Workers were not eligible for PUA benefits if they could telework with pay. Also, workers had to be authorized to work to be eligible for PUA, so undocumented workers did not qualify.
Benefit amounts were calculated based on previous earnings, using a formula from the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program under the Stafford Act. PUA had a minimum benefit that was equal to 50% of the state’s average weekly UI benefit (about $190 per week).
Since it could take time for states to be ready to process claims for freelancers, gig workers, and independent contractors, workers were eligible for retroactive benefits and could receive benefits for up to 39 weeks, including any weeks when the worker received regular unemployment insurance.
The program started on Jan. 27, 2020, and was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020, under the CARES Act. It was extended until March 14, 2021, when the Consolidated Appropriations Act was signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020.
PUA was given new life again, adding 29 more weeks to the program after the Biden administration passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, in March 2021. PUA officially expired on Sept. 6, 2021, after a total of 79 weeks.
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)
The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program allowed people who had exhausted their regular unemployment benefits to receive up to 13 additional weeks of benefits.
States had to offer flexibility to applicants in meeting PEUC eligibility requirements related to “actively seeking work” if an applicant’s ability to find work was affected by COVID-19. The bill specifies that “a State shall provide flexibility in meeting such [work search] requirements in case of individuals unable to search for work because of COVID-19, including because of illness, quarantine, or movement restriction.”
After a series of extensions, the program also expired on Sept. 6, 2021. In total, an additional 40 weeks were added to the original 13 weeks of extended benefits.
A “non-reduction” rule in the CARES Act prevents states from doing anything to decrease the maximum number of weeks of unemployment insurance or the weekly benefits available under state law as of Jan. 1, 2020.
States Got More Flexibility to Pay Benefits
Federal law allowed considerable flexibility for states to amend their laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits in several COVID-19-related situations. States could, for example, pay benefits when:
- An employer temporarily closes due to COVID-19, preventing employees from going to work
- A person is quarantined and anticipates going back to work after the quarantine is over
- A person stops work due to a risk of COVID-19 exposure or infection, to care for a family member, or to homeschool their children
Under federal law, an employee didn’t have to quit to receive benefits due to COVID-19.
To find out the rules in their state, applicants should check with their state’s unemployment insurance program.
Which pandemic unemployment program covered freelancers and part-time workers?
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program covered these categories. Workers had to fit into one of 10 COVID-19-affected categories.
Could people whose workplaces closed temporarily for COVID get unemployment compensation?
The laws allowed states to include these groups in unemployment compensation. The affected workers didn’t have to lose their jobs to be covered.
When did these special programs end?
All three expired on Sept. 6, 2021.
The Bottom Line
Three special unemployment compensation programs helped workers survive the job loss and financial strain of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States from the end of March 2020 until early September 2021. They included unique features such as covering self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers—and those who left their jobs to care for people affected by COVID-19 or children sent home when schools closed due to the pandemic. They also provided additional payments and a longer time frame for unemployment.