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A little-known part of the CARES Act lets college students collect unemployment

Alistair Berg | Getty Images

College students can now receive unemployment benefits, provided they can prove they had paid work last year.

The reason is the CARES Act, which became law in March and made assistance for unemployment more widely available through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. This is a separate program from a state's traditional unemployment insurance system.

The new program opened eligibility for unemployment benefits to many more workers, such as independent contractors, part-time employees and gig workers.  

Before the pandemic, college students generally didn't qualify for state unemployment programs.

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"Not always but in many cases," said Jen Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan, progressive policy organization in New York. "Generally, those [programs] have a fair number of restrictions."

For instance, before the PUA program, students might not have earned enough to meet  the threshold many states required. Additionally, full-time college students generally weren't considered able and available to work, which is often a requirement to receive benefits.

The pandemic assistance program "was really meant to sweep in a lot of people who weren't eligible for unemployment insurance," said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. Given coronavirus, people should not be taking work that is unsafe, and "it broadened eligibility to anyone who lost income," she said.

About 11 million college students work, and about three-quarters of them work 20 hours or more each week.
Jen Mishory
Senior fellow at The Century Foundation

The loss of summer jobs, not to mention work-study programs that disappeared along with living on campus, makes the assistance especially critical for students.

"About 11 million college students work, and about three-quarters of them work 20 hours or more each week," said Mishory.

"This is a very difficult time for a lot of students," said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. The assistance program is "one of the easier ways to get aid," he added. "It's kind of a secret way for students to get a fair amount of aid they wouldn't normally get."

What students might receive

Full-time students are eligible for benefits, according to April guidance from the Department of Labor. They must have worked part-time, have filed a tax return and be unemployed or unable to work because of a reason related to Covid-19.

The additional federal weekly $600 enhancement ended in July, but students, even when claimed as a dependent on a parent's return, can still apply for a benefit based on state calculations from their 2019 tax returns or a minimum payment of half their state's average weekly benefit. That average weekly amount varies significantly by state, from $466.06 in Minnesota to $213.67 in Louisiana.

People can receive up to 39 weeks of core benefits from pandemic aid.

Stimulus proposals

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The pandemic aid program runs through the end of the year, but the HEROES Act passed by the House of Representatives in May would extend it until Jan. 31 and add back the $600 federal weekly payment, which also would continue through January.

The HEALS Act, proposed by Senate Republicans, would make the additional weekly federal payment $200 and extend it through October. Then, combined state and federal benefits would replace 70% of a worker's lost wages

There's no proposal for extending the pandemic assistance program. "[The Act] would also disqualify a lot of students from getting benefits," Stettner said. "You could only get it if you lost your principal source of income."

How to apply

Start online at your state's Department of Labor site to see if you qualify for regular state benefits.

If you're able to check one of the boxes for your unemployment — you've lost work because of a closure, or you're a caregiver and the child's school was closed, or you had a job offer that was rescinded — that makes you eligible for the pandemic assistance program, Stettner says. 

"You get the minimum [pandemic aid] benefit and you'll be given the opportunity to submit earnings documentation," Stettner said.

Freelance or gig workers could get more than the minimum if they are able to provide information on their earnings.

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