During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers have made the difficult choice not to return to an unsafe workplace or to decline a new offer of unsafe work to avoid the risk of catching the virus. On February 25, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released guidance announcing that individuals in these situations, in addition to other categories, may be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is a temporary program created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, initially to provide unemployment benefits to individuals who usually do not qualify for state unemployment benefits, such as self-employed and gig workers, but are unemployed because of the pandemic. 

The DOL’s new guidance extends PUA benefits to three new categories of workers: 

  1. Workers who refuse to return  to a worksite or accept a new offer to work at an unsafe worksite. The DOL considers a workplace “unsafe” when it fails to comply with local, state, or national COVID-19 health and safety standards. This may include the failure to follow standards related to mask wearing, physical distancing, and providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
  2. Certain workers of educational institutions who have experienced reduced hours as a direct result of the pandemic, including changes in schedules and partial closures. Eligibility in this category depends on whether the educational worker has a contract or “reasonable assurance” to return to the workplace in the next school year or term. Generally, an individual who does not have a contract or reasonable assurance to return to work in the next year or term may be eligible for PUA. Conversely, if the individual has a contract or reasonable assurance that they will return to work in the next year or term, they likely are not eligible for PUA.
  3. Workers who were laid off or had their hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic. Before this guidance, PUA was only available to workers who were laid off because their workplaces fully closed because of the pandemic. This category expands PUA eligibility to workers who were laid off because their workplace partially closed and to workers who have had their hours reduced because of the pandemic.

This guidance applies retroactively, meaning individuals who fall under these categories may be able to receive payments for their time out of work that has already passed. However, individuals who filed their first claim for PUA after December 27, 2020 will only be eligible for retroactive benefits for weeks of unemployment starting on or after December 6, 2020. 

The PUA payments are federally funded, but are administered by state governments. Workers should direct PUA eligibility questions to state employment agencies. The DOL estimates that it may take until the end of March for many states to modify their PUA application processes to include these categories and make the benefits available to newly eligible applicants.