By Jillian Tattersall, Chicago Employment Lawyer & Guest Blogger
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020. The United States Department of Labor has provided the following useful succinct summary of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance:
“Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is a benefit of last resort for anyone who does not qualify for other Unemployment Compensation programs and who would be able and available to work but for one or more of the COVID-19 related reasons listed in section 2102 of the CARES Act.”
Individuals who qualify for PUA include those who have exhausted all of their unemployment eligibility under state or federal law by receiving compensation for the maximum amount of time allowed along with those who previously did not qualify because they are self-employed (1099 employees) or did not have sufficient qualifying income.
COVID-related unemployment reasons include:
- You have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms while seeking a medical diagnosis;
- Someone in your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- You are caring for a family or household member that has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- You must care for your child because their school or daycare is closed due to COVID-19;
- You are unable to reach your workplace because of a quarantine imposed due to COVID-19 and remote work is not offered;
- You were scheduled to begin working but no longer have a job due to COVID-19 or cannot reach your place of employment due to COVID-19;
- The head of your household has died as a direct result of COVID-19 and while you were not necessarily working before, you have now become the bread winner for your household;
- You had to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19 (though you cannot choose to quit your job over general concerns about contracting or spreading the coronavirus absent a doctor’s order); or
- Your place of employment is closed as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
Additional criteria may also be established by the secretary of labor. It is also important to note that after the school year was scheduled to end (in other words, during “summer vacation” months), you can only file for unemployment (pursuant to reason number 4, above) if the place that you would have sent your child for daycare or babysitting is closed or otherwise unavailable to you as a direct result of COVID-19.
Applicants must file for unemployment in the state that they were working at the time that they became unemployed, partially employed, or otherwise unable to work for a COVID-19 related reason. If an applicant was working in more than one state, they may file in either state but not both.
Under the CARES Act, a job loss or reduction in hours no longer needs to be the primary source of income, it just needs to be a main source of income. This change will have the largest impact on full time students with part time jobs who are now eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Similarly, Peace Corps and Americorps participants whose volunteer sites have closed are also now eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
Even if an applicant was previously disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation, they can still receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. This includes not only individuals previously mentioned whose benefits had expired but also those who were disqualified from receiving benefits due to fraud so long as they are currently unemployed due to a COVID-19 related reason. This does not mean, however, that an applicant can refuse work in order to continue collecting unemployment. If an applicant has turned down work, they no longer qualify for any type of unemployment benefits unless they meet a different exception.
Concerns about general exposure to COVID-19 are not sufficient to constitute a reason to turn down work and an individual who does so will not be able to collect unemployment. If, however, an applicant’s doctor states that the applicant should self-quarantine due to COVID susceptibility issues (such as a compromised immune system) and remote work is not possible or a stay at home order makes it impossible to travel to an applicant’s place of employment, those individuals will also be eligible to collect Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
The failure to provide PUA for individuals who leave a job due to COVID-related concerns probably constitutes the largest oversight of the CARES Act. It provides no protection for workers who are working in or offered jobs at places where social distancing is not practiced and PPE is neither provided nor required despite coworkers contracting COVID-19. Absent a doctor’s order based on susceptibility, a person who does not have symptoms or a positive test is required to perform a job with a high risk of exposure and is not eligible for PUA if they quit.
 Department of Labor Unemployment Insurance Program Letter No. 16-20. This letter along with the text of the CARES Act are the primary sources of the information contained in this article.
 CARES Act 2102(a)(3)(A)(ii)(I).
 See https://mlk50.com/workers-shipping-pricey-jewelry-cosmetics-fear-unsafe-conditions-and-coronavirus-exposure-5afbcb2b8ede