Policy Solutions for COVID-19

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What is Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Unemployment Compensation?

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.

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Table of Contents

What Can Go Wrong and Why Early Advocacy is Critical

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. 

Ensuring a Good PUA Setup in Your State

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.

  • Have an unemployed worker with work authorization begin an online application for unemployment benefits (or have a staff member do so, but do not submit as this can be cause for a fraud prosecution) using your state’s online unemployment insurance application system.  Take screenshots and note what is confusing, difficult to use, or if the system stops you and does not allow you to continue if you are presumptively ineligible. Write up the problems. Some questions to guide your investigation:
    • Is the application itself easy to find?  Is it the first result in a Google or other search for “apply for unemployment in [state]”?  
    • Is the application system available in different languages common to your state? 
    • Is the application easy to start?
    • Is each question written in plain language or in “legal ese?”  
    • Can you apply on various browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox)?  Can you apply on an older version of a browser?  
    • Does the application work on a mobile phone?  Android phones? Iphones? Microsoft Phones?  
    • What happens if you answer in a way that you are plainly ineligible – are you allowed to complete your application or does the application stop or “kick you out”?  For example, if there is question like “are you currently unemployed?” try answering “no” and see what happens.  
    • What happens if you want to change your answer on a previous question? 
    • What options are provided for people with limited English proficiency?  If a translated application is provided, what is the quality of the translation?  In Louisiana, for example, the unemployment application landing page is provided in other languages only through Google Translate.  
  • Begin a phone application for unemployment benefits (or have a staff member do so, but do not finalize the call).  If your phone application gets you to a live person, check your state’s laws on whether you can record calls without the other party’s permission (these are called “one party” states) and if so, record the calls.  If you are in a state where both parties must agree to a call being record (a “two party” state), when a live person comes on the line, ask if you may record the call, and if the other party gives permission, record the call.  One smartphone app that makes this easier on the Iphone is TapeACall.  The professional version is $29.99 a year and does not have per minute fees, allows you to record calls you are already on, share your recordings, and to record incoming calls.  On any phone, you can also record a video while you are engaging in the call on a speakerphone. Take notes about how the phone application process goes:
    • Is it a live person or a telephone tree system? 
    • Is it easy to navigate and remember the options?  Are there ten options or two?  
    • If it is voice activated, does it recognize voices well?  Does it recognize voices with strong regional accents or foreign accents?  What happens when voice input is not recognized? 
    • If it is a live person, are they friendly?  Clear? Patient?  
    • How long does it take to get to a “real person”?  
    • What happens if you choose the option to get a “real person?”          

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:   

  1. Establish an immediate, high-priority, and well-funded project overseen by someone in the Governor’s immediate office with daily check-ins to improve the problems identified in the unemployment application system.  States are eligible for significant financial assistance for this from the first two stimulus bills. Look to learning from other infamous government website and system fails, like healthcare.gov and look to how these problems were fixed.  (For example, this Harvard Business Review article describes how the Obamacare healthcare.gov website got turned around).          
  2. Grant funds to nonprofit organizations to fill out and submit online unemployment applications.  For organizations that get these funds, hire and train staff quickly. Consider using laid-off hospitality workers, teachers who are not engaged in distance learning, and dormant AmeriCorps members for this.  Advocates and claimants can FaceTime or Skype while the advocate fills in the application.     
  3. Significantly increase staff for phone applications.  Ask the governor to hire from recently dislocated workers like hospitality and retail workers to be claims takers for unemployment claims. 
  4. Engage in and fund a robust outreach campaign.  It starts with the official social media accounts.  California’s tweets about DUA during recent wildfires are decent, but should be built on to be even more frequent, more encouraging and more specific.  Specific populations to focus on are:
    1. Gig workers/freelancers – make it clear that DUA is for them
    2. Small business owners/sole proprietors – make it clear that DUA is for them
    3. Documented immigrants who are not U.S. citizens – make it clear that DUA is for them. 
    4. Undocumented immigrants – unfortunately, DUA is not for them, but alternate resources such as state emergency funds and state-funded food benefits should be promoted, if politically feasible in your state.  Because it is fully federally-funded, the U.S. Department of Labor will have authority to investigate fraud and ineligibility.  
  5. Report your findings.
    1. Write up your findings and send them to your state representatives and U.S. Congressional delegation.
    2. Tweet out any successes or problems.  Use the hashtag #PUAreadiness.
    3. Send your findings to Resilience Force at info@resilienceforce.org.  You can also use this email address to request help in addressing PUA administration problems in your state.    

Looking for National Guestworker Alliance? Most of NGA’s work is now part of Resilience Force.

If you have a specific question about guestworkers,
email Daniel Castellanos, dcastellanos@guestworkeralliance.org