UPDATE: Important information in follow-up “Their Bad: Thousands notified in error of end of RI Unemployment Insurance eligibility”, by Michael Bilow, Mar 3, 2021.
As the latest pandemic relief bill crawls through Congress with a provision that would extend the program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits have ended for many individual recipients. According to spokeswoman Margaux Fontaine of the RI Department of Labor and Training (DLT) that administers unemployment insurance, “To date, 213 people have completely exhausted all 50 weeks of PUA.” This has been widely reported to have occurred without warning as recipients received notice only as they submitted their required weekly re-certifications of eligibility that their benefit payments this week (attributable to the prior week) would be their last.
Acting Director Matt Weldon of DLT told Motif, “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is a federal program that currently provides each claimant with up to 50 weeks of benefits. As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID shutdowns, unfortunately this means some PUA claimants are beginning to exhaust their benefits. We hope Congress will act soon to extend this essential program. If additional weeks become available to claimants, the Department will notify them as soon as possible.” The RI DLT Twitter feed echoed Weldon’s comments.
Weldon also cited a previously issued statement that warned of the problem in general terms after the most recent pandemic relief bill was signed into law on Dec 27, 2020 (emphasis added): “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claimants were previously eligible for up to 39 weeks of benefits. Now, they will be eligible for up to 50 weeks of benefits. The program will be extended through 4/10/21. Please note that you may exhaust your individual benefits before that date, depending on how many weeks you have left. No new applications will be accepted after 3/13/21.”
PUA is a new program created to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic by the federal CARES Act that became law on March 27, 2020, extending unemployment insurance to those not previously eligible, primarily formerly self-employed, contract, and gig workers. It is distinct from the regular unemployment insurance program, which was also separately extended by Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) that provided an additional thirteen weeks for those who have otherwise exhausted unemployment benefits. Both are distinct from Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) that boosted weekly benefits by $600 until July 2020.
In response to a question from Motif, “Can someone who has exhausted PUA switch to PUEC?” Fontaine replied, “Unfortunately, they cannot. Per federal guidelines, PEUC is only available to regular UI claimants, not PUA claimants.” Fontaine said that the pending bill could address the problem: “At present, Congress is considering a bill that would extend PUA from 50 weeks to 74 weeks. If that passes and is signed into law, we will work as quickly as possible to implement those additional weeks.”
Many were publicly critical of how RI handled the situation. Well-known local musician Bob Giusti (@lambgiuse) replied to RI DLT on Twitter, saying “Same thing happened to me – no warning – I would have planned differently in spending leading up (not that there’s any extra) I didn’t even apply until April last year so it definitely wasn’t 50 weeks.” Twitter user Jaydeez (@Jimdeez78) replied to Giusti, “NO heads up nothing… What a joke.. Like we don’t have enough anxiety… MA has a sweet app shows you the balance of your acct.”