In our Mutual Aid Google Group, one of the most talked-about topics is how to navigate unemployment insurance.

However, the guidelines for applying vary from state to state, and some have yet to set up their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs. This can leave independent workers with a lot of questions.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions we've been seeing:

What's the difference between unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance?

According to the US Department of Labor, unemployment insurance provides benefits to eligible workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own. In most cases, it does not traditionally cover self-employed workers.

As part of the CARES Act, the federal government introduced the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. PUA is the temporary expansion of unemployment insurance so that self-employed workers, part-timers, independent workers, and freelancers can also qualify if they've lost work after January 27 as a result of COVID-19.

If you were previously ineligible for UI, you may now be covered under these new guidelines. If you qualify for PUA, you'll get state money for a maximum of 39 weeks (the amount will vary depending on where you live). Additionally, if you qualify, you will receive an additional $600 a week from the federal government through July 31, 2020.

How do I know which to file for?

Each state situation varies, and some gig workers may qualify under their state’s regular UI laws. Some also may require you to first get rejected for UI in order to apply/qualify for PUA. To help, we are compiling a list in the Freelancers Mutual Aid Circle of where to find your state’s latest updates on UI and the status of their PUA rollout.

Can I still get unemployment benefits if I work from home?

There's been some confusion about a clause in PUA that states that workers who may telework for pay are not eligible, as many freelancers work from home.

To clarify: in this context, telework applies to people who are still employed (say, through their W-2 jobs) and working from home OR had the opportunity to telework but turned it down. You should still be eligible if you can prove you've lost work or clients as a result of the pandemic.

What paperwork will I need?

If you’re still waiting for your state’s PUA program to launch, it might be useful to get your documents in order.

Just like filing your annual tax return, applying for PUA is a little more complicated than if you were a full-time employee. According to Vox, you should pull together all the documentation you can–tax returns, 1099s, invoices–and keep track of how much you were being paid each month. The more documents you have and the better organized you are, the easier the process will likely be.

If your application is still pending for either UI or PUA, be sure to follow your state’s guidelines to file claims so you don’t miss out on any weeks.

What else can I do to get financial relief?

Since successfully filing a claim can take time, you might want to look at other options for relief. One is applying for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which, while currently out of money, is expected to replenish funds soon.

In the meantime, there may be other ways to get the help you need. You can join a mutual aid group or browse The Freelance Mutual Aid Circle for funding opportunities.

If you have additional questions on applying for benefits or have advice to share, you can also join our Mutual Aid Group.

[Photo: Unsplash: Patrick Perkins]