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  • Navigating Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Unemployment Assistance Is Now Available to Massachusetts Self-Employed, Independent Contractors, and Other Vulnerable Workers

In some ways, it looks and sounds a lot like a typical New England April – trees and bushes starting to bud, rainy days, birds chirping. But, we all know that it has been far from a normal start to spring.

The COVID-19 pandemic is, of course, the reason that so many things – including Tax Day – have changed this April. While not having to file taxes until July 15th may be a slight relief, the virus-related shutdown of our communities has caused many individuals and families an overwhelming amount of financial distress.

If you are a sole proprietor, an independent contractor, part of the gig worker economy, or similarly employed, the team at Morse realizes that the COVID-19-related lockdown may have struck your finances particularly hard.

Up until very recently, you may have felt like there were not many, if any, options for receiving assistance during this challenging time. However, on April 2, 2020, a financial relief program, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), became available to workers like you. Morse, of course, wants to help you understand PUA and how to apply for it.

Unemployment Assistance for Independent Contractors, the Self-Employed, and More

Virtually every employer in Massachusetts takes part in the state’s unemployment insurance (UI) program, which provides temporary income assistance to eligible workers. This program has always covered almost every type of worker. However, as you may already know, there are some exceptions to this coverage, including self-employed individuals, independent contractors, real estate brokers, and sales people paid solely by commission.

So, when Massachusetts Governor Baker shut down non-essential businesses on March 23rd – and then extended those closures through early May – many workers were wondering how they would be able to replace their typical earnings during this time.

Fortunately, the government recognized the need to expand the reach of unemployment insurance during the COVID-19 crisis to assist more individuals and families battling economic hardship.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced in early April that independent contractors, the self-employed, gig economy workers, part-time employment-seekers, freelancers, and others who would not normally qualify for regular unemployment compensation under state or federal law, will now be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

Below, we have researched some answers to a few of the key questions you may have about this new program:

What are the PUA benefits?

If you are deemed eligible, the PUA may provide you with up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits. The last week this benefit is payable is the week ending December 26, 2020.

In general, the weekly benefit amount that unemployment compensation claimants are eligible for in Massachusetts is approximately 50% of their average weekly wage, up to the maximum set by law. As of October 2019, the maximum weekly benefit amount is $823 per week.

Who qualifies for PUA benefits?

Based on our research, to be eligible for PUA benefits, you will be required to self-certify that you would otherwise be able and available to work, except that you are prevented from doing so by one of the following circumstances relating to COVID-19:

  • You have been diagnosed with COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking a diagnosis, or a member of your household has been diagnosed
  • You are providing care to a household or family member who has been diagnosed
  • You have primary responsibility and are providing care for a child or other person that is unable to attend school or another facility as a result of COVID-19
  • You are unable to access your place of employment because of the quarantine imposed as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency
  • You are unable to reach your place of employment because you have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine
  • You were scheduled to start work and do not have a job as a result of COVID-19
  • You have become the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19
  • You had to quit your job because of COVID-19
  • Your place of employment is closed because of COVID-19

It’s important to know that if you are able to work with pay, or are receiving paid sick or other leave, you will likely not qualify for PUA.

How are PUA claims filed?

Because self-employed individuals, independent contractors, gig workers, etc. make up a completely new category of eligible individuals for unemployment compensation, the U.S. Department of Labor is very concerned about preventing fraud, abuse, and identity theft. Thus, all states were required to design entirely new online application systems to ensure claims from individuals are valid and to enable payment of benefits to eligible claimants. For this reason, the online platform for Massachusetts PUA claims just recently became available.

If you submit a claim and are found to be eligible for this assistance, you should be retroactively compensated with your PUA benefit beginning February 2, 2020, or the first week you were unable to work as a result of COVID-19, whichever date is later. This retroactive payment will include any entitlement you may have to an additional $600 being provided by the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program to current and new unemployment compensation claimants.

Our research shows that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program may open up a new avenue for workers like you to apply for cash benefits and, hopefully, replace a portion of your average weekly earnings.

Morse, Of Course, Is Committed to Being Here for You

As your local insurance agent for over 70 years, we strongly believe that our responsibilities to our clients and neighbors stretch far beyond providing insurance policies. The Morse team will continue to monitor the constantly evolving situation caused by COVID-19, and make sure to alert you – on our blog or on our social media channels – to anything we think may help support you and your family’s overall well-being.

We also want you to know that we are here to serve you remotely if you have a claim or payment question, require a certificate of insurance, or need assistance finding resources for questions and concerns about insurance and beyond. Please contact us if our Morse family can be of help to you and your family.