As the job-killing COVID-19 pandemic rages, accessing unemployment benefits in recent months has been a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians — as well as a headache.
While it had initially had its issues — including overloaded helplines — the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) application gave gig workers and freelance professionals the opportunity to receive unemployment benefits for the first time.
And since the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, designed to provide emergency financial relief to workers affected by COVID-19, ended on July 25, workers affected by the pandemic that relied upon the additional $600 per week it provided have struggled without it.
“That program was so vital to workers in Pennsylvania and was really responsible for helping people stay afloat through this crisis,” Julia Simon-Mishel, the supervising attorney of Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s unemployment compensation division, told Technical.ly last week. “People have really been hurting since it disappeared.”
The Lost Wages Assistance Program was a newer initiative from state legislators designed to help local workers receive benefits they may have lost when FPUC ended. By logging online and certifying that their unemployment is due to COVID-19, an extra $300 could go to individuals on an unemployment program or pandemic unemployment assistance program between Aug. 1 and Sept. 5. That program has officially ended because funds ran out, but the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry stated Thursday that it would continue to pay eligible applicants retroactively for those five weeks.
Non-pandemic unemployment compensation has also changed. With wages from October 2019 to March 2020 now being included when applying for unemployment, Simon-Mishel said people who were not able to apply before are now eligible for benefits.
“For example, when people applied in March, their financial eligibility did not look at their recent employment,” she said. “Wages from October through March are now included. It’s including the six months before the pandemic and a lot more people will be eligible.
Simon-Mishel added that for people who have been on unemployment since March 2020, after the 26 weeks of their unemployment runs out, they will be automatically switched into Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), a federal extension that lasts for 13 weeks. Once that runs out, beneficiaries will be switched into Extended Benefits (EB) for 13 weeks. EB can only work by way of online claims.
Altogether, people can receive up to a year in unemployment benefits. Once their claim year runs out, it is recommended that they apply for a new unemployment application.
And we haven’t touched on taxes at all here — but heads up, the IRS is recommending that anyone receiving unemployment compensation have taxes withheld now “to avoid a tax-time surprise.”
1. Who is eligible for PUA?
Self-employed workers, independent contractors and gig workers — but it’s a little tricky.
“When the program started there was a broader understanding of who would be eligible, but the federal Department of Labor has come down hard on states,” she said. “In order to be legally eligible for PUA you had to have a recent job that was stopped or postponed because of COVID. Looking for work is not enough. Communities have been saying that PUA is eligible for anyone and unfortunately that’s not true.”
Workers are encouraged to apply for PUA only if they are eligible.
2. How much will I receive from PUA?
According to Simon-Mishel, PUA recipients can expect to receive a base rate of $195 a week and could possibly receive more.
“In order to qualify for more you would need to provide documentation of earnings for 2019,” she said. “You can upload that in the PUA portal. We also have a guide to understand and contest your weekly unemployment amount.”
3. Can I still receive the extra $600 per week from the federal government?
Simon-Mishel said that for eligible recipients, the additional $600 from the FPUC is retroactive for individuals still waiting to receive it.
“It’s important for people to know if they are still waiting for benefits prior to week of July 25, they can still receive the benefits,” she said. “If you applied in June and are waiting, you would get both non-pandemic benefits and PUA. It’s based on the week you’re claiming. Your claim week is based on last Saturday.”
Eligible applicants would receive the $600 or any backpay a week after they receive non-pandemic unemployment, as people are not allowed to claim non-pandemic unemployment and PUA at the same time.
4. I’m self-employed. How should I enter my employment history?
Simon-Mishel said that freelancers and contractors are are expected to report the entities they work with in the employment history section of their PUA application, and if they have clients they received payment from directly, they should say that they are self-employed.
“We understand that the system may still be requiring them to enter employment history, which can be confusing when you are your own employer,” Simon-Mishel said. “We recommend that people provide as much information as they can on the initial application, but recognize that it is unfortunately not set up all that well.”
5. How long after filing can I expect to see movement on my claim?
You should receive a letter of financial determination on your portal inbox almost immediately after filing. Some claims come up as having unresolved issues, which the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry will resolve as it works on claims. If your claim has issues listed, you don’t need to do anything and can still file weekly claims. Filing weekly claims is the only way to receive PUA payments.
“The PUA system is set up with a self-certification model, so benefits come more quickly than regular unemployment,” Simon Mishel said. “It’s important to only make claims if you qualify; if you don’t, the government can come after you. The vast majority of people qualify but it’s important for people to know there can be consequences for lying on their claims.”
The attorney said that many people’s request end up backlogged due to decisions regarding their lack of work. As a result, applicants need to watch their mail for information on next steps.
“It’s really important that people keep an eye on their mail because that’s how decisions come to you,” she said. “So if you receive a decision and are denied, you should immediately appeal even after the 15-day deadline.”
6. I have a $0 debit in my account from PA Unemployment Compensation. What is this?
This is the Pennsylvania Treasury department establishing a connection to your bank account if you signed up for direct deposit.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get paid that day, but it does mean that they are in the process of figuring out how to get money from the treasury to your bank account,” Simon-Mishel said.
7. Why can’t I file weekly claims?
Weekly claims begin being available one week after you file the initial application. You need to file claims for every week you’ve been unemployed, even those that occurred prior to you filing the application. For some, these claims are not available yet.
“There are an unbelievable amount of glitches with this system, and a lot of people are having trouble filing their weekly claims for a variety of reasons,” Simon-Mishel said. “We believe the department is aware of the fact that the correct weeks are not showing up for individuals and we are hopeful that they are addressing that and will update the system accordingly.”
8. How should I report my earnings on a weekly claim?
You should report your income that has been earned, not when paid.
“For instance, if you are a photographer and you booked an event in the fall and you’ve received the down payment for that event, I would not consider that money earned because you have not yet actually done the work,” Simon-Mishel said. “So you would not need to report that until you actually do the work.”
If you are just now receiving funds for time worked prior to you being unemployed, you should not report these payments in your weekly claim. You should only report what you earned for work done during the week you’re filing for.
“For individuals who are confused about how to handle that, our recommendation is you pick one way to do it, and do it consistently,” she said.
9. What is net income and gross income?
Gross income is how much you make before taxes and other charges are taken out of your paycheck. Net income is how much you actually take home.
Self-employed workers are being asked to report their gross income, but Philadelphia Legal Assistance sees this as going against the law and is working to address this issue with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor.
Unemployment is about your entire employment history, so if you were working part-time and filing for benefits, you’re required to report weekly earnings, even if it’s from a new job or in a different state. Any earnings you have must be reported to unemployment.
10. If I report earnings on a weekly claim, will this affect my benefits?
If you make less than 30% of your weekly payment, you will still receive the full benefit amount for that week. If you make more than 30%, your benefits will be reduced on a dollar-to-dollar scale, meaning if you make 35% of your benefit amount, your payment will be reduced by 5%.
“I know this is hard for people but it’s really important that they report income even if it’s below the partial benefit credit,” Simon-Mishel said. “They must be honest and forthright with what their earnings were during that week.”
11. What are potential earnings?
These are wages or earnings you could have received if you were offered a shift or a job but turned it down. These are not wages you could have been making if you were employed.
“For the vast majority of people right now who have lost business or income due to COVID-19, they don’t have potential earnings,” Simon-Mishel said in May. “There is no work available for them during the week, so they can report zero if that is the case.”
She added some people have already filed weekly claims where they reported their potential earnings incorrectly, because the term was not defined for them.
12. I can’t get in touch with anyone to answer my questions. Help?
Simon-Mishel said there are several ways for people to reach out for help in answering their questions regarding unemployment compensation.
“There are general numbers and an online chat assistance,” she said. “We always recommend that people reach out to their elected officials. People can seek out their local legal aid organizations. So if somebody has been waiting since March, April or May and have not heard from anyone, reach out to them. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry has been providing updates on its Facebook page and Philadelphia Legal Assistance has been answering a lot of questions.”
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