Last updated April 2, 2020
The PUA will provide cash assistance to those who have lost their jobs or income due to coronavirus, who are quarantined, who are caring for a child whose school is closed, who had to quit their job as a direct result of the coronavirus, who are caring for someone who is sick, and for other coronavirus-related reasons. See this fact sheet from the National Employment Law Project for a full list of who qualifies. PUA is a federal program which came out of the stimulus bill signed on Friday, March 27. The program will be administered by individual states, usually by the state workforce agency, which in various states may be called the labor, workforce, economic opportunity department. Use this Unemployment Benefits Finder from the U.S. Department of Labor to find the name of the responsible agency in your state.
PUA is intended for people who suffer work loss but are not eligible for regular unemployment compensation, including people who are self-employed (including “gig” workers like Uber/Lyft drivers), those who are seeking only part-time work, and workers who do not have a long enough work history to qualify for regular state unemployment benefits.
The maximum weekly benefit is determined by prior wages/earnings. The minimum benefit is equal to one-half the state’s average weekly unemployment benefit (nationally, this averages out to about $190 a week). You can find the average weekly benefit in your state at this page at the U.S. Department of Labor (choose your state, not region, keep the default to the most recent year, click Submit and look at “Average WBA” for the amount, but be prepared, in many states, it’s shockingly low). Here is an example for Florida:
The good news is that there is also something called Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) that will provide this weekly amount PLUS $600 per week, at least through the summer of 2020.
The PUA program is modeled on the Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) program, which rolls out following natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding or wildfires. New Florida Majority and Resilience Force recently documented problems with the DUA program in Florida following Hurricanes Irma and Michael, Category 5 hurricanes which hit Florida. In our report, A People’s Framework for Disaster Response: Rewriting the Rules of Recovery After Climate Disasters, we documented that after Hurricane Irma in 2017, when individuals tried to file DUA claims online, they were often sent to a webpage that failed to provide them an option to do so. If they did manage to file, they were asked a series of lengthy and complicated questions, which had either a “right” answer or a “wrong” answer, with no opportunity for the applicant to explain their circumstances or to ask questions. If the applicant entered a single “wrong” answer, the application was rejected and there was no way to revise an answer or attempt to file a new online claim.
The cumbersome and confusing online system led many people to seek assistance over the phone, but the phone system for Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, the state labor agency which managed DUA, was frequently down. As Marcia Olivo of The Miami Workers Center, which helped people attempt to file DUA claims, told a journalist more than a month after Irma hit, “It’s hilarious and also horrifying, all the ways it screws up.” She noted that of the 20 people she saw trying to apply, only one was able to actually receive benefits, and only after an actual official with the DEO was brought in to assist.
When it came to outreach about the assistance available, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity tweeted only twice about DUA, but ten times about available assistance for small business owners after Hurricane Michael. It was clearly a deprioritized outreach effort for a benefit people both deserved (by law) and direly needed (by circumstance). By contrast, the California agency that administers DUA tweeted 21 times about DUA during the California wildfires, including one that said “EDD encourages people affected by CA wildfires to apply for Federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance,” something that could easily get picked up by local news, community aid organizations, communities throughout social media and other sources capable of broadcasting the call far and wide.
The result was that just 7,229 Floridians were able to submit DUA applications following Hurricane Irma, and of the 7,026 individuals deemed eligible, only 54%—3,744 people—were actually provided the DUA they were due as residents, workers and taxpayers. As the NELP Action Fund noted, this was the worst record in Florida in more than 30 years. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, by comparison, under a Democratic governor, 90% of those deemed eligible received DUA.
Even worse, more than a third of this small group of recipients received their first payment a full six months after Hurricane Irma hit.
Poll any unemployment insurance advocates in your state about any existing problems with applications they are aware of. You may find unemployment insurance advocates in legal aid offices, law school clinics, or unions (especially unions in seasonal occupations such as construction unions). Note that many states have no unemployment advocates, and many advocates come in only to advocate after a person has been denied and therefore may not have experience with the application system, so don’t spend too much time on this step.
Because of the nature of the coronavirus crisis, you don’t want workers going in person to apply for benefits, so don’t spend time visiting unemployment offices, which may be closed anyway. Focus on online and phone applications, but do note which, if any, offices are open in case that becomes the only way to resolve issues.
The state unemployment compensation program is usually entirely controlled by state governments, and so advocacy efforts should be directed at the Governor. Here is an advocacy agenda that governors can adopt and local officials and advocates can push for: