Workers who weren’t eligible for Massachusetts unemployment benefits before the COVID-19 outbreak — including independent contractors and participants in the so-called “gig economy” — can now apply for benefits online.
The new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is administered by the state, but funded through the $2 trillion federal CARES Act. It provides up to 39 weeks of assistance for qualifying individuals who can’t work because of the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.
If their applications are approved, they’ll receive a weekly benefit equivalent to roughly 50 percent of their average weekly earnings. (Like other unemployed Americans, PUA recipients will also receive a weekly $600 payment, not linked to past income, created through another portion of the CARES Act.)
The online application, which is available in both English and Spanish, requires (among other things) a federal ID number; wage records from 2019; and a description of the coronavirus-related circumstances that have limited the applicant’s ability to work.
Rosalin Acosta, the state’s secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, says the state expects to help between 300,000 and 500,000 people through the program, which is being rolled out slightly ahead of schedule.
“It depends on how many people are unemployed right now due to COVID-19, and I would suspect a good majority are,” Acosta said.
“We’ll probably know a little more as the next two weeks roll out, how many people have applied,” she added.
Unemployment numbers in Massachusetts and the U.S. have surged as the coronavirus crisis has worsened.
While individuals who are receiving paid sick leave commensurate with their usual work schedule aren’t eligible for the new program, individuals receiving paid leave for less than their usual work week may be. Individuals whose ability to work has been reduced, but not eliminated, due to COVID-19 may also qualify.
In late March, Gov. Charlie Baker likened building a system for individuals not previously eligible for unemployment insurance to creating an “alternate universe."
Since then, some individuals likely to benefit from the new system have chafed at their inability to obtain benefits. But Acosta says the state worked hard to roll out the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program as quickly as possible.
“We really wanted to deliver something to the commonwealth earlier than we had first stated,” Acosta said. “We understand how important it is to have this benefit for folks out there that have not been working for so long.”
Asked how the new system is functioning, Acosta was upbeat.
“The application is very intuitive, very simple to use,” Acosta said. “And so far, folks seem to be pretty satisfied with the application process. They’re completing [it] in less than 20 minutes.”