DOL Issues New Guidance On Unemployment Expansion

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (April 28, 2020, 10:26 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Department of Labor has issued fresh guidance to states grappling with a recent federal unemployment supplement that extended emergency jobless benefits to "gig" workers and others who are out of work due to the pandemic, but can't collect under existing laws.

Employment and Training Administration head John Pallasch's Monday letter to state unemployment administrators summarizes the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and includes a lengthy Q&A section explaining who's eligible, how states should process claims, how much workers can collect and other facets of the program.

For example, a worker who previously exhausted their benefits and has not earned enough money to reestablish them can collect if they can't work because of the pandemic, while workers who have lost their jobs and refuse employers' calls to return to work cannot, Pallasch said.

Monday's guidance is the latest in a series of unemployment insurance program letters the ETA has sent states to help them respond to an unprecedented surge in benefits claims during the pandemic. The agency has issued some guidance on existing law, but has mostly focused on the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which created the PUA and made other changes to bolster the unemployment system.

Unemployment benefits are generally only available to workers who are classified as "employees" for payroll purposes and have earned a certain amount of money over a certain period of time, with the specifics varying by state. The PUA extends benefits to independent contractors, the self-employed and others who couldn't otherwise collect, though workers and states alike have struggled to grasp its mechanics.

The new guidance answers dozens of questions DOL officials fielded in an April 8 webinar with state unemployment administrators, dividing them into several categories.

A little over a third of the questions concern PUA eligibility. Among other things, Pallasch said workers who don't qualify for regular benefits because they've taken unpaid medical leave may be able to collect if they took leave for reasons related to the virus, as can workers who can't work because they're the primary caregiver of a child whose school has closed. But those workers can't keep collecting after the school year ends "absent some other qualifying circumstances," Pallash said.

A section discussing how to administer claims directs states to review denials dating back to the PUA's Jan. 27 retroactive effective date to identify workers who may be eligible under the new law. If states identify newly eligible workers, they must alert them and explain how to file a new claim. The guidance tackles several other questions, including whether states can convert claims ineligible workers filed under regular laws to PUA claims, and how to handle claims from workers who live in one state but are self-employed in another.

Workers eligible for PUA assistance can collect a minimum weekly benefit based around their state's average payout under existing laws, though they can get more depending on their earnings. Tuesday's letter directs states to provide workers who can't prove their earnings at least the minimum, among other guidance.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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