The U.S. Department of Labor's unemployment insurance (UI) program provides cash benefits to eligible workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own. The program is administered by individual states, but the law itself is a federal one.

Benefits, which are funded by payroll taxes, are paid weekly by individual state governments to those who qualify. But there are specific regulations about which unemployed workers qualify for this type of insurance.

The federal government made changes to eligibility for unemployment benefits because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. They were initially put in place after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law in March 2020. The benefits were extended with the passing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA) and again after President Joe Biden was elected with the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021.

Here's a look at who does and doesn't qualify for unemployment insurance under normal circumstances and how the rules were amended during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Key Takeaways

  • Under normal circumstances, you can't collect unemployment benefits if you quit your job or if you're self-employed.
  • The CARES Act expands unemployment insurance benefits through three programs to help workers affected by the 2020 novel coronavirus pandemic.
  • The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program extends benefits to the self-employed, freelancers, and independent contractors.
  • People who leave their jobs due to a risk of COVID-19 exposure or infection or to care for a family member may also qualify for UI benefits.
  • The 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act and American Rescue Plan Act expand and modify some of the expired unemployment programs introduced in the CARES Act.

Who Qualifies for Unemployment?

While each state sets its own guidelines for UI benefits eligibility, you usually qualify if you:

  • Are unemployed through no fault of your own. In most states, this means you left your last job because of a lack of available work.
  • Meet work and wage requirements. You must meet your state's requirements for time worked or wages earned during an established base period.
  • Meet additional state requirements.

How Do I Apply for Unemployment?

To collect UI benefits, you must file a claim with the UI program in the state where you worked. Depending on your state, you may be able to file a claim in person, by telephone, or online. When you apply, you need to provide certain information, including your Social Security number and the addresses and dates of your previous job.

In general, you should contact your state's UI program as soon as possible after you become unemployed and file your claim in the state where you worked. However, if you worked in multiple states or in a different state than where you now live, contact the state UI agency where you reside for guidance on how to file your claim with other states.

To find details about your state's unemployment insurance program, visit CareerOneStop, a job resource website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Who Doesn't Qualify for Unemployment?

Under normal circumstances, you can't collect unemployment benefits if you quit your job or if you're self-employed—which includes freelancers, independent contractors, and gig workers.

Of course, there are other ways to get disqualified, depending on where you live. In most states, you can't get unemployment insurance if you:

  • Are dismissed for workplace misconduct. What constitutes misconduct varies by state, but in general, intentionally violating safety rules, theft, embezzlement, violence, and other criminal activities will disqualify you. A failed drug test may also constitute misconduct.
  • Are dismissed for misconduct outside of work. Some states don't allow employers to terminate employees for misconduct outside of work, but some do. If so, it may also disqualify you from collecting UI benefits. 
  • Turn down a suitable job. If you pass on a job that's comparable to the one you lost, you probably will no longer qualify for benefits. Your state may consider factors like pay, your training and background, and safety when it determines what constitutes a suitable job.
  • Don't look for work. You must report to your state's UI program that you've applied to a certain number of jobs each week. If you don't report this information on time, or if you stop looking for a job, you may lose your benefits.
  • Are unable to work. If you're on maternity leave, dealing with a family emergency, temporarily disabled, or otherwise unable to work, you may lose your eligibility. However, in some states, you may qualify for benefits if you quit a job for medical reasons or to care for an ill family member.
  • Receive severance pay. In some states, you can't collect UI benefits if you also have severance pay. If you get eight weeks of severance pay, for instance, your UI eligibility starts nine weeks after you lost your job.
  • Commit fraud. If you don't report income or a new job, you are disqualified from receiving benefits. You may even have to repay your benefits or go to jail for fraud.

COVID-19 Unemployment Relief

The unemployment rate increased to its highest level since data was first collected when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, peaking at 14.8% in April 2020 before dropping down to 6.7% in December 2020. It affected almost every industry and individuals across the country, regardless of their age, gender, or employment status.

The federal government took steps to alleviate the burden on unemployed individuals, especially those who wouldn't otherwise qualify for unemployment benefits. On March 27, 2020, President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus package, referred to as the CARES Act. It temporarily expanded unemployment insurance benefits through three programs, one of which allowed certain workers who were normally left out of UI programs to collect benefits.

The CARES Act created the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which provided an additional $600 benefit each week to the uninsured, but that benefit expired on July 31, 2020. The passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed by President Trump on Dec. 27, 2020, included new funding for the FPUC at a lower rate of $300 per week, through March 14, 2021.

President Joe Biden extended these benefits when he signed the American Rescue Plan Act on March 11, 2021. Additional provisions were put into place, allowing unemployed individuals to continue receiving benefits until Sept. 6, 2021.

Please note, however, that a total of 25 states have elected to end the $300 federal supplement early. The best way to confirm the status of your unemployment benefits is to check with your state's unemployment office. The Department of Labor lists the contact information for all fifty states' labor offices on its website.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

The CARES Act established the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which has now been extended, following the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.

The program temporarily extends unemployment benefits to certain workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and eligible self-employed workers through Sept. 6, 2021, under the American Rescue Plan Act. The bill, signed by President Biden, extended the program from 50 to 79 weeks. Workers who qualify include:

  • 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 

Workers are not eligible for PUA benefits if they can telework with pay. Unemployed individuals also must be authorized to work to be eligible for PUA, so undocumented workers will not qualify.

To qualify, 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 were diagnosed with COVID-19 or have symptoms of it and are trying to get diagnosed.
  • A member of your household was 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 a care facility because it's closed due to COVID-19.
  • You are quarantined or have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine.
  • You were scheduled to start a job, don't have a job, or can't reach the job due to COVID-19.
  • You became the primary earner 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. The PUA has a minimum benefit that's equal to 50% of the state's average weekly UI benefit (about $190 per week).

If you applied or are planning on applying for unemployment insurance under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, be sure to check with your individual state to determine when your last PUA payment will be issued.

New Unemployment Programs

In addition to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, the CARES Act, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the American Rescue Plan Act extended unemployment benefits through two other initiatives: The FPUC program and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program.

Here is a quick summary of how the three programs compare:

PROGRAM WHAT IT DOES
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Extends benefits to the self-employed, freelancers, and independent contractors. 
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) Provides a federal benefit of $300 a week.  
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) Extends benefits for an extra 53 weeks after regular unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted.