Updated: 2021-04-26 by
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – the $2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed on March 27, 2020 – extends unemployment benefits to many workers who are not eligible for traditional unemployment. Although the program was originally set to end in December 2020, Congress has extended it twice, most recently until September 6, 2021. (However, some states are cutting off these benefits early.)
Read on to learn more about the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides up to 79 weeks of benefits to gig workers, contractors, self-employed people, and others in California who have lost income as a result of COVID-19 and don’t otherwise qualify for unemployment.
Do You Qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance?
You must meet two criteria to qualify for PUA: You must not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits, and you must have lost work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ineligible for Regular Unemployment Benefits
PUA is a special program that extends unemployment benefits to workers who wouldn’t otherwise get them. If you qualify for regular unemployment benefits in California, you cannot collect PUA. See Am I Eligible for Unemployment Benefits in California to find out if you meet California’s qualification requirements for regular benefits.
Regular unemployment benefits are available only to employees, not contractors and others who are self-employed. However, the self-employed, contractors, freelancers, and gig workers may all qualify for PUA. You may also qualify for PUA if you are an employee who can’t get regular unemployment benefits because you have an insufficient work history under California’s usual rules or because your benefits have already run out.
Lost Work Due to COVID-19
The purpose of the PUA program is to provide temporary financial support to those who have lost income because of the coronavirus pandemic and can’t be reached through the traditional unemployment program. To receive PUA, you must certify that you are unemployed, partially unemployed, or not able and available to work for one of these reasons:
- You have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms and awaiting a diagnosis.
- A member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
- You are caring for a family or household member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
- Your child or other household member for whom you are the primary caregiver is unable to attend school or another facility that has closed due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
- You are unable to go to work because of a quarantine or because a health care provider has advised you to self-quarantine.
- You were scheduled to begin a job that no longer exists or that you can’t get to for reasons relating to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
- The head of your household died as a result of COVID-19, and you have become the household’s breadwinner or major support.
- You have to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19.
- Your workplace is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
If you are (or could be) working your usual hours from home, or you are receiving paid sick leave or other paid leave benefits, you will not be eligible for PUA. (See Am I Entitled to Paid Sick Leave, Family Leave, or Vacation Time in California to find out whether your state offers paid time off.)
How Much Will You Receive as a Weekly Benefit?
The PUA program pays a weekly benefit amount, typically based on your prior earnings. Unemployment claimants were eligible for an additional $600 per week under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program; however, this program expired at the end of July 2020. However, Congress later renewed the program at a lower rate: From December 26, 2020 until September 6, 2021, claimants are eligible for an additional $300 per week. (Some states are cutting these benefits off sooner, however.) (Certain filers who have lost both employment and self-employment income may be eligible for $400 per week.)
Calculating Your Weekly Benefit Amount
Each state has its own formula for calculating regular unemployment benefits, based on your work history or earnings during the base period. (Learn how California calculates regular unemployment benefits here.)
Under the PUA program, this calculation is slightly different. The PUA calculation is based on the disaster unemployment assistance program, which pays benefits to those who might not otherwise qualify following a major disaster declared by the President. Here’s how it works:
- California will look at your earnings during the prior tax year (not the base period that would ordinarily apply) to calculate a benefit amount using its usual rules.
Generally, your weekly benefit in California will be one twenty-sixth of your earnings in the highest paid quarter of the base period. If your earnings are lower, however, this might vary. You can look up how much you will receive in the Unemployment Insurance Benefit Table.The maximum weekly benefit amount in California is $450 per week.
- If the benefit amount under the state’s formula is less than the PUA minimum weekly benefit amount in California, you must receive at least the minimum. In California, the minimum weekly benefit amount for those receiving PUA for weeks of unemployment from April 1 through June 30, 2021 is $147 per week.
Additional $600 Per Week Has Expired; $300 Now Available
The CARES Act also created the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which paid an extra $600 per week to unemployment recipients in any week in which they earn at least $1 in benefits. This extra amount was also available to those receiving PUA benefits.
However, the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program expired at the end of July 2020. The President created a temporary lost wages assistance program, which provided an additional $300 or $400 to claimants for a period of time. However, funds for that program ran out by November in most states.
In December 2020, Congress renewed the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program at a lower rate: Claimants may receive $300 per week in extra benefits from December 26, 2020 until September 6, 2021 (except in those states that are cutting off these benefits early). As explained above, certain claimants may be eligible for $400.
How Long Does Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Last?
You can receive PUA for a maximum of 79 weeks. However, you will qualify only for as long as you are unemployed, underemployed, or unable or unavailable to work for one of the coronavirus-related reasons listed above.
The program will last until September 6, 2021, under the American Rescue Plan passed in March of 2021 (except in those states that are cutting off these benefits early).
How You Can Apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance
Although PUA is funded by the federal government, it is administered by each state’s unemployment agency. Check the website of the California Employment Development Department for information on how to apply, as well as California's resource page on coronavirus and unemployment.
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