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Guidance Clarifies Eligibility for Gig-Worker Jobless Benefits

April 28, 2020, 4:12 PM

Sidelined gig-economy workers struggling to receive assistance under the fledgling Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and state agencies processing their claims, can now rely on a new set of federal guidelines.

Fear of contracting the coronavirus would not qualify a worker for benefits under the new system, nor would a refusal to return to work if a company is providing an opportunity, the Labor Department said in question-and-answer guidance released Monday night. But Peace Corps and AmeriCorps participants, students who are no longer able to work part-time jobs, and even people who can’t provide wage records can receive weekly unemployment checks under the program, the guidance said.

The new program, established in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act (Public Law 116-136), was designed to provide jobless benefits to independent contractors, gig-economy workers and others who would not normally qualify for unemployment insurance. Also included are individuals who were scheduled to start a new job before the pandemic prevented the employment relationship from commencing.

The program, which requires claimants to submit an application to their state labor department, has been characterized by prolonged confusion about eligibility criteria since it took effect early this month. Many claimants have been mired in an extended waiting period for states to process their claims amid the massive wave of unemployment nationwide—26.5 million new claims over the past five weeks. State agencies, meanwhile, have encountered problems with antiquated unemployment insurance software and staffing levels inadequate to meet demand.

As of Tuesday, 20 states had started paying Pandemic Unemployment Assistance compensation, a DOL spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law. In the new guidance, DOL’s Employment and Training Administration took steps to address dozens of questions it has fielded from state officials.

For instance, the agency said states are required to review regular unemployment-compensation claims that were denied going back to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance’s retroactive start date of Jan. 27, identify claimants who may be eligible under the new program, and inform those individuals in writing of their potential eligibility.

Further, if states aren’t able to obtain wage records to determine a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimant’s weekly benefits amount, they must still pay the individual at the state’s minimum unemployment insurance level. The minimum is calculated by each state as the average weekly benefit paid to all regular unemployment-insurance claimants.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com