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. There are specific regulations about which unemployed workers qualify for this insurance.

On March 27, 2020, President Trump signed into law a $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus package called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It temporarily expands unemployment insurance benefits through three programs, one of which allows certain workers who have traditionally been left out of UI programs to now collect benefits.

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

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.

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 misconduct at work. 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 will be disqualified from receiving benefits—and you might have to repay your benefits or even go to jail for fraud.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

The CARES Act established the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. It temporarily extends unemployment benefits to certain workers affected by COVID-19 and 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 

Workers are not eligible for PUA benefits if they can telework with pay. Also, workers 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 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 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 don't have a 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 has 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).

If you have 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.

PUA Still Being Set Up

As of the first week of April, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance 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, independent contractors, and other newly-eligible people. 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. In the meantime, check with your state's UI program website for any updates.

Three New Unemployment Programs Under the CARES Act

In addition to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, the CARES Act extends unemployment benefits through two other initiatives: the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. Here is a quick summary of how they 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 $600 a week.  
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) Extends benefits for an extra 13 weeks after regular unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted.