The U.S. Department of Labor recently issued guidance to state unemployment insurance agencies, expanding the categories of workers that are eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The PUA program was created in March 2020 to provide payments to certain people affected by COVID-19, as well as independent contractors and gig workers who do not usually qualify for unemployment insurance.  While funded by the federal government, states are responsible for administering it.

New Eligibility Categories

This new DOL guidance expands eligibility to three categories of workers:

  • Workers receiving unemployment benefits who had been denied continued unemployment benefits claims because they refused to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite not in compliance with coronavirus health and safety standards;
  • Workers laid off, or who have had their hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic; and
  • School employees working without a contract or reasonable assurance of continued employment who face reduced paychecks and no assurance of continued pay when schools are closed due to coronavirus.

The guidance does not pertain to individuals who quit their job due to COVID-19.  The guidance states that this “new COVID-19-related reason applies only to individuals who had already been receiving unemployment benefits but were determined to be ineligible or disqualified under state law because they refused an offer of work at a worksite that was not in compliance with local, state or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19.” The DOL added that there is a separate item in the CARES Act providing eligibility to an individual who quits his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19.

Examples of New Eligibility

The DOL provided examples as part of its guidance.  For example, an individual who was laid off in June 2020, received regular unemployment compensation, and was then recalled to work in October 2020, but because the worksite was not in compliance with the local mask mandate, the individual refused to return to work.  Previously, the individual was disqualified from continued receipt of regular unemployment compensation under state law, but now the individual is eligible to apply for PUA under this new COVID-19-related reason.

In another example, an individual was laid off in October 2020 and received regular unemployment compensation, but was disqualified from continued receipt of the unemployment compensation when he declined a new job offer in January 2021 due to noncompliance by the workplace with physical distancing measures under state law. The individual is now eligible to apply for PUA under this new COVID-19 related reason.

The expanded eligibility categories can be applied retroactively – they apply as if they had been included from the beginning of the PUA program. Individuals filing their first initial PUA claim after Dec. 27, 2020, however, are limited to unemployment beginning on or after Dec. 6, 2020.