What Is Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)?

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is a program that temporarily expands unemployment insurance (UI) eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. PUA is one of the programs established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus package that President Trump signed into law on March 27, 2020. The Act expands states' ability to provide unemployment insurance to many workers affected by COVID-19, including people who aren't ordinarily eligible for unemployment benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), established by the CARES Act, temporarily expands unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers.
  • You must provide self-certification that you are able to work and available for work, and that you are unemployed, partially employed, or unable or unavailable to work due to a COVID-19-related situation.
  • Benefit amounts are calculated based on previous earnings, using a formula from the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program under the Stafford Act.
  • Those who are eligible for PUA can also receive $600 per week through July 31, 2020, under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.
  • States may not be ready to process claims for freelancers, gig workers, and independent contractors for awhile, but workers will be eligible for retroactive benefits and can receive benefits for up to 39 weeks.

How Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Works

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program runs from Jan. 27, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2020. It extends 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

However, workers who can telework with pay are not eligible for PUA benefits. Also, workers must be authorized to work to be eligible for PUA, so undocumented workers will not qualify.

How to Apply for PUA

To be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), you must provide self-certification that you are able to work and available for work, and that you are unemployed, partially employed, or unable or unavailable to work due to one of these COVID-19-related situations:

  • You have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have symptoms of it and are trying to get diagnosed
  • A member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19
  • You are providing care for someone diagnosed with COVID-19
  • You are providing care for a child or other household member who can't go to school or to a care facility because it's closed due to COVID-19
  • You are quarantined or have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine
  • You were scheduled to start a job and no longer have the job or can't reach the job due to COVID-19
  • You have become the primary earner for a household because the head of household died as a direct result of COVID-19
  • You had to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19
  • Your place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19
  • You meet other criteria set forth by the Secretary of Labor

Benefit amounts are calculated based on previous earnings, using a formula from the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program under the Stafford Act. PUA will have a minimum benefit that's equal to 50% of the state's average weekly UI benefit (about $190 per week). 

As of the first week of April, this program is still being set up by the U.S. Department of Labor. It may take some time for states to be ready to process claims for freelancers, gig workers, and independent contractors. Workers will be eligible for retroactive benefits and can receive benefits for up to 39 weeks, including any weeks during which the worker received regular unemployment insurance.

Many state's UI websites have crashed or are very slow because of the huge numbers of people currently trying to apply for UI benefits. Watch for updates on the program website, and be aware that many states have indicated they will backdate claims to the date you first became unemployed.

Three New Unemployment Programs Under the CARES Act

In addition to the PUA program, the CARES Act extends unemployment benefits through two other initiatives: the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program and the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program. FPUC is a flat amount given to people who are receiving unemployment insurance, including those who get a partial unemployment benefit check. It applies to people who receive benefits under PUA and PEUC.

Program What it Does
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Extends benefits to the self-employed, freelancers, and independent contractors. 
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) Extends benefits for an extra 13 weeks after regular unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) Provides a federal benefit of $600 a week through July 31, 2020. 

Source: H.R. 748

Special Considerations

Federal law allows considerable flexibility for states to amend their laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits in several COVID-19-related situations. States can, for instance, 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 working 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 doesn't have to quit to receive benefits due to COVID-19. 

To find out the rules in your state, check with your state's unemployment insurance program.