Impacted by COVID-19: Am I Entitled to Unemployment Insurance

The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of California employees wondering if they are entitled to unemployment insurance (“UI”) benefits. This post addresses how the UI program works in California, what new laws impact the UI program, and many common eligibility questions that may pertain to your situation (see the Frequently Asked Questions section below).

How Does Unemployment Insurance (“UI”) Work?

Generally, the UI program provides financial benefits for employees who lose work due to no fault of their own. The program is administered by the State you live in and overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”). In California, UI benefits are administered by the Employment Development Department (“EDD”) who processes UI claims and determines eligibility. Generally, to receive UI benefits, you must meet all eligibility requirements when filing a claim and when certifying for benefits.

Eligibility requirements include:

  1. Your past earnings must meet certain minimum thresholds;
  2. You must be unemployed without fault of your own; and
  3. You must be able, available, and actively seeking work

If approved, the EDD determines your weekly benefit amount based on your past earnings, ranging from $40 up to $450 per week, which is generally capped at 26 weeks. To get an estimate of what you will receive, you can use the UI Benefit Calculator. Although, as set forth below, due to COVID-19, the weekly benefit amount has increased by $600 and the payments are extended to 39 weeks. You can file a claim for UI benefits online, by phone, by fax, or by mail. However, the EDD strongly recommends you file online.

New Laws Expanding UI Benefits

Waiver of One-Week Waiting Period: Generally, there is a one-week waiting period for individuals obtaining UI benefits. However, due to COVID-19, California’s Governor issued an emergency proclamation waiving the non-payable one-week period for regular UI benefit payments as a result of COVID-19. This means you can be paid benefits for the first week you are unemployed because of COVID-19.

Extra UI Benefits: On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) was signed into law. Among other provisions, the CARES Act temporarily expands UI benefits through the creation of several programs (discussed below):

  1. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (“FPUC”): Under the FPUC, individuals who are eligible for UI benefits will receive an extra $600 weekly benefit in addition to the amount the individual otherwise would be entitled for all weeks of unemployment. In California, only the weeks of a claim between March 29, 2020 and July 31, 2020 are eligible for the extra $600. The EDD started issuing the extra benefit amount on April 11, 2020.
  2. Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (“PEUC”): The PEUC provides for an additional 13 weeks of UI benefits for individuals who have exhausted benefits they are otherwise entitled. Therefore, in California, eligible individuals now may receive UI benefits up to a maximum of 39 weeks, whereas previously benefits were capped at 26 weeks. The extended benefits are available from Feb. 2-Dec. 31, 2020 (depending on when you became directly impacted by COVID-19).
  3. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (“PUA”): The PUA expands coverage to certain workers who traditionally are not eligible for UI benefits, such as individuals who are self-employed, independent contractors, have limited work history, or who have exhausted all rights to regular or extended unemployment benefits, among others. This is particularly important for those who work in the gig economy, who work largely as independent contractors and freelancers.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I collect UI benefits if my employer reduces my hours or shuts down because of COVID-19?

Yes. You can be eligible for partial wage replacement benefits if your employer reduces or temporarily cuts your hours. If your hours are temporarily reduced or cut due to COVID-19, but expected to return to work within a few weeks, you are not required to actively seek work each week. However, you must remain able, available, and ready to work during the unemployment period for each week of benefits claims and meet all other eligibility requirements.

How much can I collect in UI benefits?

Benefits range from $40-$450 per week. Depending on your awarded amount, the number of weeks you can potentially receive benefits ranges from 13-26 weeks if you are paid at your full weekly benefit amount. Although, because of COVID-19, you are entitled to an extra $600 a week, between March 29, 2020 and July 31, 2020, and an additional 13 weeks of pay through Dec. 31, 2020. Claimants do not need to do anything to receive this extra funding. The EDD will automatically add the full $600 to each week of current benefits that are paid every two weeks, as long you are eligible for at least $1 in a regular payment each week.

Can I file an UI claim if I am self-employed, an independent contractor, or a gig worker?

Generally, if you are self-employed, an independent contractor, or a gig worker, and you are unable to work or have had your hours reduced, you may be eligible for UI benefits only under a few scenarios:

  • You chose to contribute to UI elective coverage and previously paid the required contributions;
  • Your past employer made contributions on your behalf over the past five to 18 months; or
  • You have been misclassified as an independent contractor instead of an employee.

However, as a result of the passage of the CARES Act, business owners, self-employed individuals, independent contractors, gig workers, or those who have exhausted all rights to such benefits, may be eligible for UI benefits if you also meet one of the following criteria:

  • You have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and are seeking a medical diagnosis.
  • You are unable to work because a health care provider advised you to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19.
  • A member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • You are providing care for a family member or a member of your household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • A child or other person in the household for whom you have primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of COVID-19 and the school or facility care is required for you to work.
  • You became the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • You must quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • Your place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • You were scheduled to start a job that is now unavailable as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • You are unable to reach the place of employment as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • If you work as an independent contractor with reportable income, you may also qualify for PUA benefits if you are unemployed, partially employed, or unable or unavailable to work because the COVID-19 public health emergency has severely limited your ability to continue performing your customary work activities, and has thereby forced you to stop working.

The EDD will begin accepting online applications for this program on April 28, 2020.

Note, however, if you are not a United States citizen, you cannot be paid PUA benefits unless you were legally permitted to work in the U.S. at the time services were performed.

What UI benefits are available if I am subject to a quarantine, but not ill?

If your hours are reduced due to a quarantine, you were separated from your employer during a quarantine, or you were subject to a quarantine required by a medical professional, you can be eligible for UI benefits if you have enough earnings over the past 12-18 months and meet other eligibility requirements.

If I choose to stay home from work because I am at high risk for complications from COVID-19 (e.g., an underlying health condition), am I eligible for UI benefits?

Yes, you may be eligible for UI benefits if you choose to stay home. Once you file your claim, the EDD will contact you if it needs more information.

Am I eligible for UI benefits if I must miss work because my child’s school shuts down?

Yes, you may be eligible for UI benefits. The EDD representatives, however, will determine eligibility on a case-by-case basis. For example, you may be eligible for UI benefits if your employer has temporarily allowed you to work less than full-time hours due to your childcare situation. In such case, you may be eligible for reduced benefits, as long as you meet all other eligibly requirements.

Am I still entitled to UI benefits if I can work remotely from home?

No, unless your working hours are reduced through no fault of your own.

Can I collect UI benefits and Disability benefits at the same time?

No. While you have the right to apply for both UI and Disability benefits at the same time, you can only collect payments under one benefit program at a time. The EDD will review the facts and determine your eligibility for the appropriate program.

Am I entitled to UI benefits if I am fired because I refuse to work during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It depends. If you refuse to work because you are at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19 (e.g., an underlying health condition), or because your worksite is unsafe or unhealthy because of COVID-19, you may be eligible for UI benefits, if you meet all other eligibility requirements. Once you file your claim, the EDD will determine eligibility. If your workplace is objectively unsafe or unhealthy because of COVID-19 and your employer fired you for refusing to work, you may have a wrongful termination claim. Contact the attorneys at HAE for more information.

Am I entitled to UI if I quit a job because I am not comfortable working because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

It depends. If you refuse to work because you are at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19 (e.g., an underlying health condition), or because your worksite is unsafe or unhealthy because of COVID-19, you may be eligible for UI benefits, if you meet all other eligibility requirements. Once you file your claim, the EDD will determine eligibility.

If you are forced to quit your job because your workplace is objectively unsafe or unhealthy because of COVID-19 and your employer is refusing to make it safe, you may have a wrongful constructive discharge claim.

Contact the attorneys at HAE for more information.

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