What Was Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)?

The term Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) refers to a program that temporarily expanded unemployment insurance (UI) eligibility to people who wouldn't otherwise qualify. This included self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

PUA was among the programs established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus package that then-President Donald Trump signed into law on March 27, 2020. The program expired on Sept. 6, 2021, along with other employment-related programs that provided COVID relief.

Key Takeaways

  • PUA was an employment-related program established by the CARES ACT.
  • It temporarily expanded unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers.
  • Individuals were required to self-certify that they were unemployed, partially employed, or unable to work, or unavailable for work due to the effects of COVID-19.
  • Benefits were calculated based on previous earnings with a formula from the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program under the Stafford Act.
  • PUA expired on Sept. 6, 2021, after a total of 79 weeks.

Understanding PUA

PUA extended unemployment benefits to eligible workers, including:

  • Freelancers and independent contractors
  • Workers seeking part-time work
  • Workers who don’t have a work history long enough to qualify for state unemployment insurance benefits
  • Workers who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for benefits under state or federal law

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 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.

PUA had a minimum benefit equal to 50% of the state’s average weekly UI benefit (about $190 per week).

PUA Eligibility

You were required to provide self-certification that you were able to work and available for work. Other eligibility criteria included being unemployed, partially employed, unable to work, or unavailable for work due to one of the following COVID-19-related situations:

  • You were diagnosed with, or showed symptoms and were trying to get diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • A member of your household was diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • You provided care for someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • You provided care for a child or other household member who couldn't attend school or go to a care facility because of a COVID-19 closure.
  • You were quarantined or were advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine.
  • You were scheduled to start a job and no longer had or couldn't reach it due to COVID-19.
  • You became the primary earner for a household because the head of the household died as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • You quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • Your place of employment closed as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • You met other criteria set forth by the U.S. labor secretary.

Benefit amounts were calculated based on previous earnings, using a formula from the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. 

Many states backdated claims to the date when workers first became unemployed.

Unemployment Programs Under the CARES Act

FPUC was a flat amount given to people who received unemployment insurance, including those who got a partial unemployment benefit check. It applied to people who received benefits under PUA and PEUC. The original $600 amount was reduced to $300 per week after the program was first extended by the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020. Like PUA, FPUC expired on Sept. 6, 2021.

Unemployment Programs Under the CARES Act
Program What It Does
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Extended benefits to the self-employed, freelancers, and independent contractors. 
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) Extended benefits up to 39 weeks after regular unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted. Later benefits were extended by 79 weeks.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) Initially provided a federal benefit of $600, which was reduced to $300.

Special Considerations

Federal law allowed considerable flexibility for states to amend their laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits in several COVID-19-related situations. For instance, states were able to pay benefits when:

  • An employer temporarily closed due to COVID-19, preventing employees from going to work
  • A person was quarantined and anticipated going back to work after the quarantine was complete
  • A person stopped working due to a risk of COVID-19 exposure or infection—or in order to care for a family member

Under federal law, an employee didn't have to be laid off to receive benefits due to COVID-19.

Who Was Eligible to Receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)?

PUA was intended to support workers who didn't otherwise qualify for unemployment insurance. Examples of the types of workers targeted by the PUA program included freelancers, part-time gig workers, and self-employed individuals.

To qualify, workers were required to certify that they couldn't work due to one or several conditions related to COVID-19. The program expired on Sept. 6, 2021.

Were PUA and Unemployment Insurance (UI) the Same Thing?

No, the PUA and UI programs were different. To qualify for PUA, the worker couldn't be eligible for UI. Although they were different programs, the intention of both programs was the same: to provide financial support to unemployed workers. In the case of PUA, the program was introduced specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was found that traditional UI programs did not provide adequate support for those working outside of permanent full-time jobs.

Was I Able to Get PUA and UI at the Same Time?

No, it was not possible to receive PUA and UI at the same time. Those who were eligible for UI didn't qualify for PUA. Likewise, PUA was only available to workers who didn't qualify for UI.