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COVID-19, the Federal CARES Act and your California California Unemployment Benefits: What You Need to Know


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, which the President signed into law on March 27, 2020, and which went into effect on April 1, 2020. While the CARES Act is designed to provide broad-based support for the economy, several of its key provisions specifically address unemployment benefits. Here is a brief overview of these provisions and how they might impact you:

  • The CARES Act provides an additional 13 weeks of California unemployment benefits (UI benefits) on top of the maximum 26 weeks currently allowed by California law; this means you can seek up to 39 weeks in benefits as long as you continue to meet the eligibility requirements during that time.
  • California law sets UI benefits at between $40 and $450 per week based on a person’s prior earnings; the CARES Act adds an additional weekly benefit of $600 for those who qualify for state benefits through July 31, 2020.
  • Traditionally, only “employees” were eligible to receive unemployment benefits in California and the individuals had to have sufficient work history to qualify for benefits. However, now, under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, individuals who are business owners, have limited work history, self-employed or work as independent contractors can now also be eligible for unemployment benefits. As of April 28, 2020, those individuals can apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance through the California unemployment system (EDD). These individuals will be eligible for up to 39 weeks of benefits starting with weeks of unemployment beginning February 2, 2020, through the week ending December 26, 2020.
    • Individuals who qualified for regular UI benefits, but already collected those benefits can also apply for PUA benefits.

It is important to note that non-US Citizens can only be paid PUA benefits if they were legally working in the US when they were affected by COVID-19, so undocumented workers will not qualify for benefits.

However, it is important to understand that there are a number of conditions and restrictions attached to these benefits, including but not limited to to the following:

  • you must have “exhausted all rights” to unemployment benefits under federal and state law;
  • you are not entitled to UI benefits under current law;
  • you are “able to work, available to work, and actively seeking work”; and
  • you are “unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work” due to the COVID-19 pandemic; this can mean you have lost work due to the pandemic, or you are required to care for yourself or a member of the household who has been diagnosed with the disease.

Get Help Understanding Changes in the Law

There have been significant changes to the law in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there will likely be more changes as we move forward. If you have any questions about California employee rights or about your unemployment benefits, contact a qualified California employment law attorney as soon as possible.


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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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