A new report from the Government Accountability Office reveals underpayments to jobless Americans covered by the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

By Catey Hill
December 03, 2020
Credit: Getty Images

It’s possible that your unemployment checks should be larger. 

Indeed, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog organization, revealed this week that most states have been underpaying unemployed Americans who are getting benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA). “The majority of states have been paying PUA claimants the minimum allowable benefit instead of the amount they are eligible for based on prior earnings,” the GAO noted in a report it released this week.

Who does this impact? Up to 9 million workers rely on PUA, government data shows. The PUA program gives unemployment benefits to self-employed, freelance, contract and part-time workers whose work was negatively impacted by COVID-19. 

How did this happen? Some of this has to do with the fact that it’s harder to determine income for these kinds of workers, says Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. PUA was created under the CARES Act, and at first, states could just pay people the minimum unemployment benefit so that payments wouldn’t be delayed, she explains. But after that, benefits should have been recalculated to reflect the person’s actual income. However, many jobless people do not realize they are being underpaid and thus have not provided that documentation, she adds.

The GAO recommends that states remedy this deficit: “States should pay the difference between the amount previously paid and the amount owed for all weeks of unemployment that an individual files during the Pandemic Assistance Period.” And some states, like California, are already working to do that by checking payments against 2019 tax returns. 

How do I know if I’m getting too little? If you’re getting benefits under the PUA program, and you are not receiving checks that would amount to around 45% of your income (assuming you were not a high earner), it’s worth checking if you may qualify for more PUA, says Evermore. Note that each state has a maximum unemployment benefit, so higher earners will likely not get 45% of the income replaced by unemployment checks. Plus, she adds that some states replace less than 45% of your income anyway, so in that case you’d be getting less.

What should I do if I think I’m owed more? Contact your state unemployment agency to get a redetermination of income, says Evermore.  The process for this will be different in each state, but the agency should be able to guide you.