Pandemic Unemployment Insurance and Leave Benefits

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The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is having a significant impact on the workplace. Employers are cutting back staff, having employees work remotely, and changing operational procedures to help ensure employee and customer safety.

There were 712,000 unemployment claims for the week ending November 28, 2020. With over 20 million people currently collecting unemployment benefits, this marks the highest level of unemployment since the Department of Labor began tracking data.

Pandemic Unemployment Insurance Benefits

Here’s information on new unemployment and sick leave benefit programs for workers impacted by the coronavirus, what’s available, how to apply for benefits, and what you can expect to receive.

The Department of Labor's Economy Recovery portal has information on filing for unemployment in your state, plus resources for housing, food, finances, health care, and more.

Federal Legislation Expanding Unemployment

Bipartisan legislation to help workers, H.R. 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, has been passed by Congress and signed by President Trump.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides additional unemployment benefits for workers who have lost their jobs.

Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Act

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that qualified unemployed workers, including laid-off workers, self-employed individuals, independent contractors, workers with a limited work history, and those who can't work due to the coronavirus will receive:

  • State Unemployment Insurance (UI) (employees)
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) (workers not eligible for UI) through December 31, 2020.
  • Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC): A $600 per week payment, in addition to regular unemployment benefits through July 31, 2020.
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC): An additional 13 weeks of unemployment after state benefits are no longer available through December 31, 2020.
  • Federal Supplemental Payment: An additional $300 per week supplemental benefit funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through December 27, 2020.

Payments will be made by your state unemployment department, and you can get the details on benefits and file for unemployment online.

Unemployment Benefit Programs

State Unemployment Insurance (UI)

State unemployment insurance benefits are available for eligible workers. Most states provide a maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment compensation. Unemployed workers can file for benefits online.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) provides unemployment benefits to workers who were not traditionally eligible for benefits, including self-employed people through December 31, 2020. These benefits are provided for a maximum of 26 weeks.

Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC)

Federal funded Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) provides an additional $600 a week for any worker eligible for state or federal unemployment compensation benefits through July 31, 2020. This will be paid automatically and will be in addition to UI or PUA compensation. 

Extended Unemployment Benefits

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act (PEUC)

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act (part of the CARES Act) provides for federal funding for additional weeks of unemployment benefits to workers who have exhausted all benefits for a limited period of time due to COVID-19. 

Benefits are provided through the state unemployment offices, and information on eligibility will be posted online. If you are eligible, you will be advised on how to collect when your regular unemployment benefits end.

Information on state extended unemployment benefits will be posted on your state's unemployment agency website.

New Department of Labor Regulations

The U.S. Department of Labor announced new guidelines outlining flexibilities that states have in administering their unemployment insurance (UI) programs to assist Americans affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

For example, federal law allows states to pay unemployment benefits if:

  • An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work.
  • An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over.
  • An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member. In addition, federal law does not require an employee to quit in order to receive benefits due to the impact of COVID-19.

Company-Provided Unemployment Programs

Some companies are providing new or additional sick and family leave benefits because of the coronavirus. For example, Walmart has a new policy that provides employees with extra flexibility to stay home, as well as pay options and support if they are affected by the virus.

CNBC reports that Amazon continued to pay hourly workers and provided unlimited sick leave to employees through May 1, 2020.  Meanwhile, LinkedIn notes that some companies, including Apple and Patagonia, closed stores but continued to pay employees. 

How to Learn More: If your employer hasn’t notified you of changes to leave policies, check with your manager or human resources department.

Union-Provided Benefits

If you’re a union member, there may be benefits available. However, they will vary from union to union. Check with your shop steward or union hall for information on unemployment benefits and other programs for impacted workers.

How to Learn More: Check with your local union for information on benefits and eligibility.

Emergency Paid Sick Leave Benefits

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes a new paid sick leave benefit. Government employers and private sector companies with fewer than 500 workers will have to provide employees who cannot go into work or telecommute with paid sick time, provided that: 

  • The employee is quarantined or under an isolation order.
  • The worker is quarantined (including self-imposed quarantine), at the instruction of a healthcare provider, employer, or government official, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • The worker is caring for another person who has COVID-19 or who is under a quarantine related to COVID-19.
  • The worker is caring for a child or other individual who is unable to care for themselves due to COVID-19.
  • The employee is “experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by HHS in consultation with the Treasury and Labor Departments.”

Full-time employees receive 80 hours of sick leave, and part-time workers are granted leave equivalent to their average hours worked in a two-week period. Workers will be paid at least their regular wage or minimum wage, whichever is greater. Workers taking time off to care for family members will be paid at two-thirds of their standard pay. 

There are exceptions to the legislation for health care providers, and first responders. The Department of Labor may also exempt employers with fewer than 50 workers under certain circumstances. 

How to Get Benefits: Check with your employer on eligibility for benefits.

Sick Leave Benefits for Self-Employed and Gig Workers

The Washington Post reports that self-employed and gig workers are "eligible for a tax credit of up to two weeks of sick pay at their average pay and 12 weeks of family leave pay at two-thirds their normal rate." WaPo notes that the final version of the bill offers paid leave “12 weeks of paid family leave only to parents who are caring for children whose schools have closed.” The bill also potentially exempts health care providers and small businesses with fewer than 50 employees from the requirement to offer paid sick leave.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides a refundable tax credit for eligible self-employed individuals who must self-quarantine due to coronavirus. 

The benefits will be capped at $511 a day for a worker's own care and $200 a day when the employee is caring for someone else. A self-employed individual must maintain documentation prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury to establish his or her eligibility for the credit.

Company Provided Benefits for Contractors and Gig Workers

Some organizations are setting up relief funds to help with unemployment and medical expenses for gig workers, independent contractors, and hourly workers. Postmates, for example, has created an emergency fleet relief fund to cover the costs of doctor appointments and medical expenses for its workers.

Uber is providing financial assistance to drivers and delivery people who are diagnosed with coronavirus or who have been advised to self-quarantine. Concurrently, Instacart is offering sick leave benefits to part-time employees and full-service shoppers.

DoorDash is offering up to two weeks of financial assistance for eligible dashers and couriers. 

How to Learn More: Check with the company for information on benefits and eligibility.

Emergency Family and Medical Leave Benefits

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides for unpaid time off for certain workers due to medical and family reasons. The law has been expanded to include benefits for employees impacted by COVID-19. 

These benefits are in addition to existing FMLA benefits, which allows eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.

Eligibility for Benefits

Government employers and private sector companies with fewer than 500 workers must provide up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave for employees who have been on the job for at least 30 days, when those employees are unable to work on-site or remotely due to childcare needs, due to a child’s school being closed or a child care provider not being available due to coronavirus. Companies with under 50 employees can request an exemption.

Benefit Payments

The first 10 days of leave can be unpaid (an employee could choose to use vacation days or other paid leave for that time). For subsequent days of leave, workers will receive a benefit from their employers equal to at least two-thirds of their normal pay rate which will be capped at $200 a day (or $10,000 total) and expire at the end of this year.

How to Get Benefits: Check with your employer on eligibility for benefits.

State Sick Leave Programs

Some states have other sick-leave programs that some workers qualify for.

State Leave Benefits

The following states (and Washington, D.C.) have laws providing paid sick leave to employees. Benefits vary based on your state and employment status. These states include:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington (state)
  • Washington, District of Columbia

You may also qualify for disability benefits if you are unable to work due to illness.

How to Apply: Check with your employer for information on FMLA benefits. Check your State Department of Labor website for details on state sick leave and disability benefits.

Employer-Provided Sick Leave

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that overall, 73% of private industry workers received paid sick leave benefits from their employers in March 2019, with 94% of workers in management, business, and financial occupations receiving sick leave benefits.

However, paid sick leave benefits were much lower in other sectors, with only 58% of workers in service occupations and 56% of workers in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry occupations receiving benefits.

Check with your employer to find out what sick leave benefits are available to you. Some employers are expanding benefits and sick pay due to the coronavirus.

Key Takeaways

Keep Yourself and Your Family Safe: Follow the CDC guidelines for staying safe at work and for when not to work.

Stay Informed: Benefits for sick and unemployed workers are being expanded. Check with your employer and state department of work for the latest information.

Ask for Help: Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Many people are affected by COVID-19, and the government and employers want to assist as best they can.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. 

Article Sources

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  12. CNBC. "Amazon Tells All Employees to Work From Home if You Can." Accessed March 16, 2020.

  13. Forbes. "At Billionaire-Owned Patagonia Outdoor Clothing Chain, Employees To Be Paid Despite Store Closures Amid Coronavirus." Accessed March 20, 2020.

  14. LinkedIn. "Disney Closes Shops Hotels." Accessed March 16, 2020.

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