The change in eligibility goes into effect immediately, but officials cautioned that it could take at least a month, if not longer, for workers’ claims to be approved, given the significant delays that have plagued state unemployment agencies.
Workers eligible under the new guidelines will receive backdated payments for unemployment claims dating to the beginning of the pandemic, when the PUA program was created to help gig workers, self-employed workers and others who stopped working to take care sick of a sick relative or take care of a school-aged child. They will also be eligible for the supplemental $600 a week bonus that the federal government has approved through the end of July.
The new guidelines do not appear to help people who quit work in the last year because they felt unsafe — another category of unemployed workers who have been denied benefits, despite some limited eligibility for PUA.
“Workers have been in this situation where they have had to choose between accepting work that puts them at risk of covid-19 exposure or refusing such work and then being denied unemployment benefits,” said Suzan LeVine, principal deputy assistant secretary for employment and training. “The action that we’re taking today helps alleviate that decision, to alleviate that tension. … We know that the losses have fallen hardest on communities of color. And if we intend to build back better, we need an unemployment system that covers as many workers who have historically struggled to access benefits.”
Department of Labor officials said they did not have an estimate of how many people would be newly eligible for unemployment insurance under the updated guidelines. The guidelines will also expand eligibility to some workers who have lost time at work but have not been eligible for unemployment insurance because of technicalities, such as making enough in wages to qualify.
Workers at unsafe workplaces will be required to attest, under the threat of perjury, that their employer was not in compliance with either local, state or national standards about the coronavirus, such as rules related to social distancing, disinfecting, and mask-wearing, the DOL said.
The provision seems targeted at the roughly 37,000 people who were denied unemployment insurance after being laid off and declining to return to work last year — about four times the level from 2019.
But it will have little effect on the 1.23 million people who have been denied unemployment insurance after voluntarily quitting work.
LeVine said that the Labor Department will be able to track how many people take advantage of the new eligibility, to gauge the measure’s success.