When the application to file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) opened in mid-April, it gave people who aren’t eligible for regular employment — like gig workers and self-employed people — the ability to receive aid from the state.
However, the new online filing system is not without glitches and, with an overload of calls to unemployment helplines, Pennsylvanians are left with little information. Julia Simon-Mishel, the supervising attorney of the unemployment compensation division at Philadelphia Legal Assistance has some tips on how to file for PUA.
1. Who is eligible for PUA?
Individuals who are self-employed, business owners, freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors. Those who were deemed ineligible for regular unemployment due to insufficient work history are also eligible for PUA.
“If somebody started a new job in 2020, they should apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” Simon-Mishel said.
2. How much will I receive from PUA?
The minimum PUA payment is $195 per week and the maximum is $572 per week, not including the extra funds from the federal CARES Act — more on that below. Most people will immediately receive a financial determination letter in the messages section of the PUA portal saying they are eligible for the minimum payment, but if they upload more documents, like pay stubs or a 2019 tax form to prove their income, their benefits may be reconfigured to a higher payment.
If you can’t upload more documents, that will not affect your payments, and you will still be eligible for $195 per week.
“To be honest, we have not seen anyone or seen a determination finding someone ineligible,” Simon-Mishel added. “We’ve only seen people found eligible for $195 per week or more.”
3. Will I receive the $600 extra per week from the federal government?
Yes. Pennsylvania will automatically disburse $600 from the federal CARES Act to those who qualify for PUA. The payments will begin for the week ending on April 4 and end on July 25.
4. I’m self-employed. How should I enter my employment history?
If you work for an entity as a freelancer or contractor, you should report that entity in the employment history section of the application. If you have clients who pay you directly, you should file as 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. We have reached out to the department to address this confusion.”
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.
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 and Industry.
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%.
This does not apply for the $600 CARES Act payment, however. As long as you are eligible for $1 in benefits from the state, you will be paid the full $600.
“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. “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.
“The department will have to give them a way to correct this, if it leads to them being qualified for that week,” she said.
12. I can’t get in touch with anyone to answer my questions. Help?
The easiest way to get your questions answered is to email firstname.lastname@example.org. Simon-Mishel recommends checking your portal regularly for new messages. If you receive a message through the portal, you can respond to that message directly.
“If people are confused or unclear by what they’re seeing right now, I recommend waiting a few days as the department tries to fix all of these glitches,” she added. “The issue they think they have may disappear.”