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.

PUA is one of the programs originally 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 act expanded 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

  • Established by the CARES Act, PUA temporarily expands unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers.
  • PUA was extended under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, then again when the American Rescue Plan Act was enacted.
  • You must provide self-certification that you are able to work and available for work, and that you are unemployed, partially employed, or unable to work or unavailable for 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.
  • PUA will expire on Sept. 6, 2021, after a total of 79 weeks.

Understanding PUA

PUA extends unemployment benefits to eligible self-employed 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 from 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 yet again, adding an additional 29 weeks to the program, after the Biden administration passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, in March 2021. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, PUA will expire on Sept. 6, 2021, after a total of 79 weeks.

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

PUA Eligibility

To be eligible for 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 to work or unavailable for 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 U.S. secretary of labor.

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

Many states indicate that they will backdate claims to the date when you first became unemployed.

Other New Unemployment Programs Under the CARES Act

In addition to the PUA program, the CARES Act extended 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 receive unemployment insurance, including those who get a partial unemployment benefit check. It applies to people who receive benefits under PUA and PEUC. The original amount of $600 was reduced to $300 per week after the program was extended in August 2020. The expiration date for this new weekly amount is Sept. 6, 2021, as it was extended by the American Rescue Plan.

New Unemployment Programs Under the CARES Act
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 up to an extra 53 weeks after regular unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) Provides a federal benefit of $300 a week through Sept. 6, 2021. Provided $600 a week through July 31, 2020. 

Sources: H.R. 748 — CARES Act, U.S. Department of Labor, H.R. 1319

Twenty-six states have chosen to end some or all emergency federal unemployment benefits early. The best way to confirm the status of your unemployment benefits is to check with your state’s unemployment office. The U.S. Department of Labor lists the contact information for all 50 states’ labor offices on its website.

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.

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

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

Frequently Asked Questions

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

PUA is intended to support workers who would not otherwise be eligible for unemployment insurance. Examples of the types of workers targeted by the PUA program include freelancers, part-time “gig workers,” and those who are self-employed.

To qualify, workers must certify that they are unable to work due to one or several conditions related to COVID-19. This program was introduced as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress and signed into law in March 2020, then extended under the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.

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

No, the PUA and UI programs are different. To qualify for PUA, the worker must not be eligible for UI. Although they are different programs, the intention of both programs is the same: providing 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.

Can I Get PUA and UI at the Same Time?

No, it is not possible to receive PUA and UI at the same time. If a worker qualifies for UI, they cannot also qualify for PUA. Likewise, PUA is only available to workers who do not qualify for UI.