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Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Program


The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act introduced several stimulus programs to provide financial assistance to Americans struggling under the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. One of those programs, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, helped workers who lost their job but weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. These kinds of workers include freelancers, gig workers and self-employed individuals.

These benefits were set to expire on Dec. 26 unless President Trump signed a more than $2 trillion coronavirus relief and government funding package that Congress passed on Dec. 21. The day after passage, though, Trump demanded that Congress send him a new bill, one that increased to $2,000 the $600 in direct aid the bill called for. While the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives responded to Trump’s demand with plans to vote Christmas Eve on just such an amended bill, it was not immediately clear how the Republican-controlled Senate would respond.

There are some specific guidelines to know about who qualifies for the PUA, what it covers and how to apply.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Overview

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is one of three federally funded unemployment insurance programs introduced by the CARES Act. This program has a very specific aim: providing emergency unemployment benefits to those who would otherwise be ineligible for unemployment in their state or who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits. For now, this is a temporary program that’s intended to last until Dec. 31, 2020, unless the federal government opts to extend it.

The PUA provides up to 39 weeks of financial benefits to workers who qualify. Under the CARES Act, this program is retroactive with an initial start date of Jan. 27, 2020. Workers who qualify can receive benefits retroactively from when they first became unemployed. The benefit amount that workers can receive is based on the guidelines used by the federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance program.

The minimum benefit you could receive is 50% of your state’s weekly unemployment benefit. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the average state unemployment benefit was $385, as of January 2020. So someone who gets benefits through the PUA program would be looking at around $190 weekly. Through July 31, 2020, anyone eligible for PUA would also be eligible to receive an additional $600 in weekly benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program.

Who Is Eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance?

The PUA program covers a range of non-traditional workers, including:

  • Freelancers
  • Independent contractors
  • Self-employed workers

In many states, the program includes gig workers who aren’t considered traditional employees. The program also extends to those who are seeking work on a part-time basis and those who lack sufficient work history to qualify for state unemployment benefits.

In terms of who isn’t eligible for this program, you can’t claim benefits if:

Workers also have to be authorized to work in the U.S., so this program doesn’t extend benefits to undocumented individuals.

How to Qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

An unemployed person applying for assistanceAside from being an eligible worker, you also have to be able to prove that your unemployment status – whether you’re fully or partially unemployed – is due to coronavirus.

The conditions that would allow you to qualify for benefits include:

  • Being diagnosed with COVID-19 or attempting to seek a diagnosis for it, based on symptoms
  • Having a family member who’s been diagnosed with COVID-19
  • Taking care of someone who’s been diagnosed with COVID-19
  • Caring for children or other dependents who are home because of COVID-19 school closures
  • Being quarantined or advised to self-quarantine
  • Being unable to go to your place of employment because of the coronavirus pandemic
  • Having your head of household pass away from COVID-19, making you the sole income earner
  • Having to quit your job because of the virus or having your place of employment closed because of COVID-19
  • Meeting other criteria established by the Secretary of Labor

How to Apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Even though this is a federal program, you still have to apply for unemployment benefits at the state level. Typically this can be done online or over the phone. You can check your state’s department of labor website for details on how to apply or use our guide to state relief programs (if your state is not there yet, check again later, as we are writing and posting the guides as quickly as we can).

If you’ve never filed for unemployment before, you may not know what’s needed to start your claim. While every state is different, you generally have to provide the following information to complete a claim:

  • Name
  • Social Security number
  • Home address and mailing address
  • Telephone number and email address
  • Employment information, including earnings
  • Reason for being unemployed

Normally, you’d also give the unemployment office copies of your pay stubs as proof of earnings. But if you’re a freelancer, self-employed, an independent contractor or gig worker, that can be tricky.

You can use your most recent tax return as proof of income but you may also be asked for additional supporting documentation. For example, you may need to show bank statements, copies of invoices or records of electronic payments from clients you received via PayPal to show what you’ve earned. If you haven’t been keeping these records, this may be a good time to get a basic accounting system in place to organize your financial information.

One thing to keep in mind is that with more people filing for unemployment benefits, it will likely take some time to get through. And in some states, filing is being determined by alphabetical order. So it may take days or weeks for you to file your claim, get approved for PUA benefits and start receiving them. But remember those benefits will be back-dated to when you became unemployed.

The Bottom Line

Unemployed factory workers

The PUA program, one of several federal initiatives aimed at helping people cope with the pandemic, could help you stay afloat financially if you’ve lost income because of coronavirus and you’re not a traditional worker. Even if you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, it’s still worth applying if the COVID-19 outbreak has caused you to lose work. And most adults, including freelancers and independent workers, should also be eligible for a federal stimulus check of up to $1,200 for single filers and $2,400 for married couples filing a joint return. Note, as well, that banks are taking steps to help those affected by the pandemic. Finally, there are several other things you can do to get help when you become unemployed.

Tips for Investing

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how to best respond to the pandemic’s effects on your personal finances. Finding the right financial advisor who fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors who will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • If you’ve been laid off from a job and need to take more unemployment, understand what enhanced unemployment benefits are available to you.

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