COVID-19: Expanded Unemployment Insurance Eligibility and Benefits Available Pursuant to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act)

In response to the COVID-19 emergency, the federal government has passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”) which includes provisions that significantly expand eligibility for unemployment benefits and increase available unemployment compensation. These changes are in addition to the recent changes made to the unemployment insurance program in Massachusetts, as explained in Bello Welsh’s prior client alert, available here. The following is a summary of these provisions, found in the Relief for Workers Affected by Coronavirus Act (“RWACA,” Title II, Subtitle A of the CARES Act).

Relief for Individuals Not Otherwise Eligible for Unemployment Compensation

The RWACA makes “Pandemic Unemployment  Assistance” (PUA) available to covered individuals who are not otherwise eligible for regular unemployment compensation under state or federal law, including self-employed individuals, independent contractors, those with limited work history, and those who have exhausted all rights to regular unemployment compensation under state or federal law.  (This is separate from the “Pandemic Unemployment Compensation” provisions discussed in the next section.)

Such individuals must certify that they are otherwise able and available to work (within the meaning of state law), but are unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work for a wide range of reasons related to COVID-19:

  • The individual was diagnosed with COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • A member of the individual’s household was diagnosed with COVID-19;
  • The individual is providing care for a family member or household member diagnosed with COVID-19;
  • A child or other person for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or a childcare facility which is closed for the COVID-19 emergency;
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of quarantine or because the individual has been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine;
  • The individual was scheduled to commence employment and does not have a job or is unable to reach the job as a result of the COVID-19 emergency;
  • The individual has become the breadwinner or major support for the household because the head of household has died as a direct result of COVID-19;
  • The individual had to quit their job as a direct result of COVID-19;
  • The individual’s place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19; or
  • The individual meets any additional criteria established by the Secretary of Labor.

Individuals with the ability to telework with pay, and individuals receiving paid leave benefits (including paid sick leave), however, are not eligible for PUA.

This expanded eligibility is available for up to 39 weeks of unemployment, partial unemployment, or inability to work caused by COVID-19, beginning on or after January 27, 2020 and ending on or before December 31, 2020, as long as the covered individual’s unemployment, partial unemployment, or inability to work caused by COVID-19 continues.

The weekly benefit amount for covered individuals is the weekly benefit amount authorized under the unemployment compensation law of the state where the covered individual was employed (except that the amount may not be less than the minimum weekly benefit amount described in 20 C.F.R. § 625.6[1]), in addition to $600 per week as provided for by the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation provisions (discussed below).

Expanded Unemployment Compensation for Currently Eligible Individuals

The RWACA also makes available “Pandemic Unemployment Compensation” (PUC), which significantly expands unemployment compensation available to individuals eligible for regular unemployment compensation under state law.  PUC is also available to individuals eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA, discussed above).

  • Eligible individuals will receive an additional $600 per week, beyond the amount they are eligible to receive under state unemployment law, for up to 4 months. Pursuant to this provision, the maximum weekly benefit in Massachusetts will be $1,423.
  • Eligible individuals who remain unemployed may receive an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits after state unemployment benefits are exhausted. Pursuant to this provision, the maximum length of benefits in Massachusetts will be 39 weeks.

Note that, as drafted, the PUC provision means that some employees could receive a weekly unemployment benefit that is greater than 100% of the individual’s weekly wage when employed. The Act also includes a “nonreduction rule,” pursuant to which a participating state may not modify state law such that the number of weeks (maximum benefit entitlement) or weekly benefit amount would be reduced below the amounts in effect as of January 1, 2020.


The RWACA includes a reimbursement incentive for states to waive the waiting period generally applicable to an individual’s first week of unemployment. As explained in Bello Welsh’s prior client alert, Massachusetts has already implemented a waiver of the one-week waiting period for individuals who applied for unemployment on or after March 10, 2020 due to circumstances relating to COVID-19.

Work Search Requirements

Under the RWACA, individuals must continue actively seeking work to remain eligible for the benefits described above; however, the law directs states to provide flexibility in meeting work search requirements, in case of individuals unable to search for work because of COVID-19.  Massachusetts has already implemented such flexibility, as described in our prior client alert.[2]

We will continue to monitor legal developments related to COVID-19 and provide updates as new laws and regulations applicable to employers are enacted.

[1] This regulation contains detailed rules for calculating unemployment benefits amounts with reference to state law provisions, discussion of which is outside the scope of this document.

[2] The RWACA also contains provisions concerning temporary financing of, grants for, and assistance in implementing short-time compensation programs.  As Massachusetts already has a WorkShare program, these provisions may not have practical effect for Massachusetts employers.