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Labor Department expanded eligibility for unemployment—here's who qualifies

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The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to those facing unsafe workplaces, as well as out-of-work parents who had to quit their jobs when schools and child-care providers closed and had no job when children returned to the classroom. 

Specifically, the Labor Department expanded the circumstances under which workers could qualify for unemployment insurance payments through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA). The order expands eligibility to:

  • Workers who were denied unemployment benefits after they refused to work in unsafe conditions
  • School staff and employees who have been affected by school closures through reduced pay or who are not assured of continued pay
  • Any worker who had their work hours reduced or who lost their job as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic

"Today's guidance opens the door to relief for workers who have faced difficult, if not impossible, choices between accepting employment in an unsafe workplace to receive a steady source of income and protecting their health and that of their loved ones," Patricia Smith, senior advisor to the Secretary of Labor, said in a statement Thursday

Beyond allowing school staff and workers who feel unsafe to claim unemployment benefits, the new guidance also offers relief for those who have had to deal with child care and school closures affecting their jobs, even after schools went back to in-person attendance. 

"This is great news for a case we've seen a lot: parents [who] left work when schools closed, jobs replaced them, and then they were out of work, but school reopened," Elizabeth Pancotti, policy director with Employ America tweeted on Thursday. She noted that if parents had to quit their jobs as a direct result of Covid-19, even if schools reopened, they will be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

The new guidance fixes this "glaring problem" for parents who had to quit work because their child's school closed due to Covid-19 and then didn't have a job to return to when things reopened, says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and leading unemployment insurance expert.

The latest eligibility expansion is part of the PUA program, which was set up under the CARES Act relief package that Congress passed about a year ago. The program specifically covers business owners, self-employed Americans, gig workers and independent contractors who are out of work or have significantly reduced hours as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The PUA program is 100% federally funded, but administered by each state.

Thursday's changes to eligibility are retroactive, so workers who were previously denied unemployment can re-apply for PUA and get benefits dating back to the start of their unemployment period. That said, workers who applied for unemployment benefits after Dec. 27, 2020 will only be eligible for weeks after Dec. 6, 2020.

The Labor Department is also mandating that states offer workers the option to select more than one reason for their unemployment based on Covid-19. That way, they can remain eligible for benefits even if one of the reasons subsides. 

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