The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is still being worked out and will likely not be operational for several weeks, according to state officials.
Arkansas Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said that his department has received an influx of calls about PUA benefits but that the program has not gone online due to system hold ups. In a press conference, he said the U.S. Department of Labor has released guidance for the PUA program and that his department will have to build a new system to process claims for the program.
Preston previously acknowledged the difficulties the Commerce Department was facing in regards to PUA payments. He told reporters in an April 1 press conference that the department was unable to process these claims and that calls concerning these payments had created a “backload” on the department’s ability to process other unemployment claims.
The current estimate for the system’s completion is at least three weeks.
“This has never been done before, and our system was not built to be compatible with the information that we’re going to have to receive,” Preston said. “Arkansas is not unique in this. Every state is going through the same process.”
The Department of Commerce is working with corresponding agencies in other states to develop new systems as well as bringing in outside contractors to build it out “as quickly as possible.” While the system will require time to be built, Preston said that payments will be backdated as necessary.
“If your separation or your business down on March 18 due to COVID-19, we will be to backdate those payments,” he said.
A part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, pandemic unemployment assistance is designed to assist individuals who are not typically eligible for unemployment benefits. This assistance will address self-employed individuals, gig economy workers and independent contractors.
These individuals must self-certify that they are able to work and are otherwise available to work but have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
PUA benefits are mostly unavailable to individuals who are able to work remotely and be paid or who are receiving paid sick leave or benefits. However, individuals receiving paid sick leave at a lower rate that customary may be eligible for reduced PUA benefits.
The Labor Department listed the following as qualifying circumstances for receiving PUA benefits:
- Individual has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking medical diagnosis.
- A household member has been diagnosed with COVID-19
- Individual is providing care for family or household member diagnosed with COVID-19
- An individual has a child who is unable to attend school or another facility that has been closed as a result of COVID-19.
- Individual is unable to reach a place of employment due to quarantine.
- Individual was scheduled to commerce employment and does not have job/is unable to reach job as a result of COVID-19.
- Individual has quit job as a direct result of COVID-19.
- Individuals’ place of employment has closed due to COVID-19.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the PUA program provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to individuals who are unable to work as a result of unemployment, partial unemployment or unavailability of work due to COVID-19. The Pandemic Assistance Period for PUA period has been set between February 2, 2020 and December 26, 2020.
Under the terms of the PUA program, states must have a system for verifying that individuals are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance.
Preston urged individuals to have patience with the extended wait for PUA payments, noting that he would communicate when the program will go online in Arkansas.
“If you fit in that category of pandemic unemployment assistance of independent contractors, freelancers and self-employed, please wait. We will continue to update on social media, we’ll send out press releases and try to notify people as best we can when we have a certain date on that.”