Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA): What We Know So Far

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 Donald 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.

Understanding Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program runs from January 27, 2020 through December 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.

Note: 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.

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 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. PUA will have a minimum benefit that’s equal to 50% of the state’s average weekly UI benefit (about $190 per week).

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.

Note: 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 receiving unemployment insurance, including those who get a partial unemployment benefit check. It applies to people who receive benefits under PUA and PEUC.

  • 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.

Note: The Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program, which provides $300 to $400 in weekly compensation to eligible claimants, was established on August 8, 2020, following the expiration of FPUC at the end of July 2020.

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 quit to receive benefits due to COVID-19.

Why the $300 Cut to the $600 FPUC Unemployment Benefit and 2020 Extension is a BIG Deal under the Lost Wages Assistance Program (LWA)

Most have states have been approved for the $300 weekly LWA unemployment benefit. As of late August, states like Arizona and Texas have already started making the $300 payment to eligible claimants. South Dakota has declined to implement this new program. The limited funding for this program means that the states who sign up late may have limited funding to implement these programs.

President Trump’s executive order on extending extra weekly benefits looks like it will provide much-needed relief to millions of unemployed and under-employed Americans given Congress’ inability to compromise on a new stimulus bill which was supposed to include an extension of funding for the FPUC benefit (which was $600/week until the end of July 2020). Based on the recent Department of Labor guidelines, Trump’s executive order will be enacted through the Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) Program and have the following features:

The LWA program will extend the extra weekly unemployment payment until the end of the year or until funding runs out. Under the program, the extra UI benefit will cut the overall weekly payment to between $300 and $400, depending on how much states can fund their obligation (up to 25%) of the extra weekly unemployment payment versus federally owned funding (75%). The payments will be valid from August 1, 2020 to the end of December 2020, subject to funding availability.

While the federal component of this weekly payment ($300 or 75%) will be funded under the FEMA program, the states can fund their $100 component out of the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), provided under the CARES Act or other state funding. Alternatively, and importantly under DOL guidance, states may count funds that are already used to provide regular state UI payments toward the state match. If this is the case, then the revised extra FPUC weekly UI amount will only be $300.

This is a BIG deal because many states will likely just count their existing UI payments towards their state match, leaving the extra weekly payment to the federally funded $300! Which is a 50% drop from recently expired FPUC levels. While this will be in addition to existing state UI payments, it will still be a large cut for many families and jobless workers who relied on the earlier $600 FPUC payment.

Update on $600 FPUC Extension

Despite all the payout challenges with the enhanced unemployment benefits, millions of Americans have been benefiting from the $600 FPUC payment (detailed below in the previous update) as they survive Coronavirus-induced shutdowns or job losses. But with the $600 payment officially set to end at the end of July 2020, many Americans are asking if the $600 payment will be extended?

Republicans have indicated that they don’t want to extend the $600-a-week UI benefit past its current expiry. They feel the economy is improving and now want to encourage workers to go back to work versus relying on the generous enhanced unemployment benefits. This is why they are pushing for either a cut to the current $600 weekly amount to something around $200 to $300 p/week and/or providing back-to-work bonus payments.

The argument here is that the current $600 weekly federal unemployment payment on top of regular state unemployment benefits is 133% more than the average income for most jobless Americans. They want to move to something like 60% to 70% of the average income, encouraging people to go back to work (assuming their job still exists).

House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have confirmed the importance of the $600 weekly payment for the millions of unemployed.  They have proposed a new Stimulus bill in the House, called the HEROES act, which includes an extension of the $600 per week extra unemployment payment (FPUC) through to January 2021. However, it is likely they will have to compromise with Republicans to get something passed.

Many are betting that a compromise will be reached where the unemployment benefits will be extended to the end of the year. Still, the extra UI payments will be reduced and/or progressively tied to the state’s unemployment. There will also likely be a matching incentive to workers if they go back to work. But stay tuned for more updates.

Note: PUA unemployment benefits will continue to the end of the year while retroactive $600 payments will likely continue into August as state UI agencies catch-up on payouts to eligible recipients.

When Will the $600 Unemployment Benefit Start?

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has now guided states for implementation of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs and the $600 per week extra unemployment (FPUC) approved under the CARES act.

While most state labor departments and unemployment agencies have implemented the enhanced unemployment programs, they have been very slow in getting payments out due to issues with updating policies and systems to accommodate the mandated changes. As a result, state UI agency websites are behind on processing the additional $600/week payment to eligible recipients. Payments to those already receiving unemployment should be automatic, while others or newly unemployed will need to (re-)apply for the UI payments.

Will I Get the Full $600?

The $600 is added to whatever amount you are currently getting in terms of regular unemployment insurance compensation (UIC), whether it’s the minimum or the maximum. So, for example, even if you are only getting $50 a week in unemployment benefits today, you will still get the full $600 through the next four months (July 31, 2020), which is mandated in the stimulus bill.

Also, note that the $600 weekly FPUC payment is paid retroactively. The DOL has specified that states who agree to participate and take the federal funding for the enhanced benefits program under the CARES act must provide retroactive payments to individuals eligible for FPUC for the weeks they would have been entitled. So assuming your state agrees to participate in the DOL program at the end of March (and most states have done so), payments would be effective starting with the week ending 4/5/20. So, if it takes your state UI agency until mid-April to actually start the payments, they will be retroactive back to 4/5/20.

The $600 only applies to those who are receiving regular or PUA state unemployment benefits. If your state said that you don’t qualify for any amount of unemployment compensation, you do not get the $600 either. The bill also waived the 7-day waiting period for new claims or if you lost your job due to any COVID-19 related reason. So you can file as soon as you get laid off or lose income as a self-employed person.


Congress is currently deciding whether to take additional steps to assist the unemployed and otherwise strengthen the recovery from the coronavirus crisis. Key decisions include whether to extend $600 per week federal bonus payments, which are currently available to millions of current state UI recipients, as well as all those collecting temporary federal PUA and PEUC program benefits.

As they make those decisions, policymakers — and all Americans — deserve an accurate accounting of the number collecting these benefits and trends in benefit collection. Unfortunately, the current count of “persons claiming UI benefits in all programs” included in DOL’s initial claims reports is simply not giving this data to them. The PUA gap reflects, the already significant difference between what these data appear to mean and what they actually reflect is growing.