Unemployment for Self-Employed (PUA)

for contractors, gig workers, freelancers and the otherwise self-employed

Unemployment benefits are now available for all Washingtonians who have lost work because of the COVID-19 crisis—including freelancers, independent contractors and other self-employed workers. The federal CARES Act made this possible and with any luck, efforts to enact some additional stimulus legislation will extend the benefits into next year.

If you’re unemployed due to the coronavirus, whether from lay-off, reduced hours, mandatory closures, or a loss of self-employment income, you are likely eligible for unemployment benefits and should consider an application.

This specific article describes how to apply for Expanded Pandemic Benefits (PUA).  If you lost work as a self-employed worker or are otherwise ineligible for regular Unemployment benefits (UI), this article is for you.  

Here are the various types of people that may qualify for PUA despite ineligibility for regular UI benefits:

  • Independent contractors, freelancers, gig workers and other self-employed workers.
  • Part-time workers and others who have lost work due to COVID-19
  • Parents who have lost childcare due to COVID-19
  • People at high risk of contracting COVID-19
  • People sick or caring for someone with COVID-19

If you lost work as a standard full-time (or nearly full-time) employee, you may be eligible for regular UI benefits. If you think you may be eligible for regular UI benefits, please refer to the article on
Unemployment for Standard Employees who Lost Work to learn more.

For more information about the history and policy behind unemployment insurance, see Unemployment Insurance & Benefits: an overview. And if you are the owner or manager of a business with employees, you may read this to understand how to help them, but you might also take a look at our separate article about Unemployment Insurance for businesses and employers.

This article is a part of the Financial Survival Handbook [link forthcoming], which is one section of the COVID-19 HANDBOOKS FOR THE CREATIVE SECTOR.  All this month, we will post new daily articles on Financial Survival and other refreshed articles from the Handbook.

What are unemployment benefits?

Unemployment benefits provide workers with temporary income when they lose a job through no fault of their own. The money partly replaces lost earnings and helps cover expenses while looking for new work. The benefits, generally paid by past employer(s), are not based on financial need. Usually, while receiving benefits, the goal is to get back to work as quickly as possible.

More details on the background of Unemployment Insurance, overall benefits and eligibility is available in our article, Unemployment Insurance Benefits: an overview.

Applying for Unemployment Benefits

Generally, the best and fastest way to apply for unemployment benefits is online.  Especially during COVID, wait times by phone are very long and in-person applications are not available.  

Luckily, to help guide applicants, ESD has published a manual that includes most of the information in this article.  Check out the Expanded Pandemic Unemployment Benefits Guide for Self-employed, Independent Contractors & Others Affected by COVID-19.

The rest of this article will walk you through these steps, as laid out by the Employment Security Department (ESD) on their website. (each link down)

  1. Check Eligibility 
  2. Apply for Regular Unemployment Benefits (yes, even you.)
  3. Apply for Expanded Unemployment Benefits
  4. After you apply
  5. Weekly claim
  6. Other considerations

Step 1: Check Eligibility

If you have lost work as a result of COVID-19 but aren’t eligible for regular benefits as a full-time payroll employee, you are likely still eligible for benefits under the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) extended program in 2020. 

Use the “eligibility checker” to explore whether and how you will be able to apply for benefits, provided by the Employment Security Department (ESD) here.

The eligibility checker is in two sections, one per page, to explore both regular unemployment benefits and expanded benefits due to COVID. If you are unsure of your eligibility after completing the checklist, ESD recommends you apply anyway.

Step 2: Apply for Regular Unemployment Benefits

Yes, this may sound ridiculous, but even if you think you are ineligible for regular unemployment benefits and are here to file for the expanded program for self-employed and other ineligible workers, you start by applying for the standard unemployment program.  And then when you are denied, that’s when you apply to the expanded program.

It doesn’t matter if you are 100% certain that you are ineligible for regular benefits.  You still have to apply.

It is hard to imagine that the way to get benefits is to be denied benefits, but that’s just how this particular slice of bureaucracy is working right now.  To approve you for expanded benefits, ESD must first check if you are eligible for regular unemployment benefits. So fill out the online application the best you can.  

If you are approved for regular unemployment benefits, you will receive normal unemployment payments and you will have the option to extend your benefits if needed. If that happens to you, skip Step 3 and go directly to Step 4, or refer to our article on Regular Unemployment Benefits [link to article].

Key information:

  • Create an account or check to see if you already have one. Watch the tutorial on this page to avoid common issues that could delay your benefits.
  • Move to Step 3 if your application for regular benefits is denied. For some this will be immediate. For others it may take a few weeks.
  • ESD staff may contact you for more information. Please check your email and answer your phone. If we call, it may be from an unlisted number.

As mentioned above, it is recommended that you apply online. COVID has increased the wait times by phone absurdly.  Plus, online you can apply 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Also, ESD suggests you use a laptop or desktop computer—not a mobile device or tablet.

When applying, the system will time out after 15 minutes to protect your security.  So before you start applying online, it really is important to gather the required documents from the preparation checklist (as mentioned above).

Need help? Check the eServices User Guide or technical support FAQs.

NOTE: A decision may take time.

You can move on to step 3 as soon as you are denied regular unemployment. For some this will be immediate and for others it may take a few weeks. ESD must verify you are not eligible for regular unemployment it may require they reach out to you. Remember to submit your weekly claim while you are waiting for approval.

Step 3: Apply for Expanded Benefits

Okey dokey.  Now you’ve been denied regular benefits, which you will know because an alert will show up in your eServices account (and likely in your email depending on how you’ve set up notifications.)

Now you can apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).  Which means it is time for another checklist!  This one contains the list of documents and information required for the PUA application.

As we mentioned above, you may also consider checking out this handy manual from ESD that has instructions with screenshots directly from their system.

Key information:

  • If your application is approved, you will get an amount based on your normal income, and if that amount is at least $1 per week, you will also automatically receive an additional $600 weekly from April 4 to July 25.
  • You may be asked to upload documents such as your federal tax return as proof of income. If asked, you have 21 days to provide the proof.

Step 4: After You Apply

Once you apply, ESD will review your application and notify you if your application has been approved.  That notification should include information about how much money you will receive and what to do next. You will also be notified if you are not approved.

However, after applying, start submitting weekly claims right away—even before you’re approved—to get paid faster.

Unfortunately, due to the massive numbers of claims and applications, ESD is overwhelmed with work and taking longer than usual to reply to new applications.  But if you have an application submitted, you will be considered and contacted eventually.

Key information:

  • More information about filing weekly claims is in this guide. We recommend submitting your weekly claims online, using eServices.
  • These are the questions they ask you when you file your weekly claim. 
  • After your application is approved, they will process all the weekly claims you filed before being approved and provide you a lump sum for any payment you are still owed.
  • You will receive payment via the method you choose: direct deposit or debit card.
  • If you find work and no longer need to collect unemployment benefits, simply stop filing weekly claims. Your payments will stop. You do not need to notify us of your new job.
  • If you find work, but are not working full time, continue filing your weekly claims. We will let you know if you have “excess earnings” and do not qualify for benefits that week of your claim. 

How much will I receive?

ESD must verify wage or other income information to determine the correct benefit level. This typically takes up to three weeks if there are no issues with your application.

However, to get you money as soon as possible, ESD will pay you the minimum amount you are eligible for after you’re approved and you submit your first weekly claim.

ESD will review the information you submit as quickly as possible and calculate the total benefits you’re owed. Any money you missed will be paid.

Other important information about acceptance

  • You have to submit a claim every week that you are without work and are wanting to collect unemployment benefits. Directions for submitting claims will be provided with your acceptance information.
  • Report honestly.  If ESD discovers unreported income and work, they will require you to repay any overlapping benefits, with penalties.
  • Watch for and read any information they send you. They offer a system called eServices, which allows you to login and manage your account directly through a portal.  It’s a good option, with email notifications.  This information may be time sensitive and affect your eligibility for benefits so stay tuned.
  • Read the Unemployed Worker Handbook to learn about the requirements and dive deeper into the information here.

Looking for work

Usually, people receiving unemployment benefits are required to look for work and document their search. This requirement is now optional due to COVID-19. This change started March 8, 2020. Currently, the waiver on the work-search requirement is being extended every month, and will continue until further notice. 

Many employers are still hiring, even now, so we encourage anyone who has lost work to continue searching.

Take a look at our section on finding work for job listings, tips and tactics for finding work opportunities during COVID.

Now hiring: Employment Security itself is hiring additional staff in claims center operations. See ESD’s available jobs page at careers.wa.gov, and filter for Job Category “Insurance.”

Step 5: Weekly Claim

After you are approved for unemployment benefits, you must submit a weekly claim for every week you wish to receive benefits. When submitting the weekly claim, you are reporting on the previous week. For unemployment purposes, a week is Sunday through Saturday, and you can’t claim for a week until it’s over.

Once you have your application accepted, ESD will send you directions for all of these systems as well, but we’ve listed the steps for submitting your claim below.

The fastest way to submit your weekly claims is online, 24 hours day, seven days a week.  

If you were approved for unemployment benefits within the past 12 months, but stopped claiming for a week or more for any reason, don’t submit a new application. You can restart your claim this week, then begin filing weekly claims next week, as normal.

Other Important Considerations

Imposters & Fraud

This year has seen a record number of issues with security for our Unemployment system throughout the country and especially in Washington State.  If you suspect someone has filed for unemployment benefits using your information, don’t worry.  It will be sorted out.  But you should report it ASAP. 

Report any instances of suspected fraud or identity theft here.

At that link is more information from ESD, along with a reporting form.  They will ask for some basic information, such as your full name, SS#, address, date of birth and a description of the suspected fraud.

In addition, they provide other resources if you suspect identity theft:

Mistakes, exceptions & snags

There are so many ways that your application and/or claims can get snagged in the system, leading to delays in payment, confusion and frustration. Most important note in these cases is to not give up hope.  The answers and path forward are there, it just may require some patience, diligence and/or creativity.

Here are some issues that have been discovered by others:

  • Time sheet issues – Are you working part-time but still collecting benefits for under-employment?  Maybe you are paid by output and not by time.  Or maybe there are other oddities to the way your timesheet is reported by your employer.  Always report the actual numbers and use special notes to explain further.
  • Site issues – The ESD site is really inconsistent due to the amount of traffic and activity.  They have improved it since March, but there are still outages and issues with individuals getting “kicked off” of the site while in the middle of a form or report.  If that happens, just continue to try logging back in.  Your work may still exist, or you may need to re-submit.  If you think you may have finished a claim or other submission but do not see it in your account, assume it has not been submitted.
  • Mixed signals / confusing notifications – ESD sends email notifications often inviting additional applications and claims information and it isn’t always clear if a response is required.  If you have applied, are submitting weekly claims and are receiving benefits as described, you should be fine to continue.  Invitations to “apply for benefits” or other notifications may be written for someone who is working part-time or intermittently, or otherwise has different circumstances.
  • Violation / Repayment requirement – This one can be scary.  Maybe you got paid for a quick gig and ESD assumed you were fully employed again.  Maybe a mistake was made.  But ESD is now asking for the money back.  Don’t despair.  There are options, including the following:
    • Appeal the decision.  They describe the process in the unemployment handbook.  Sometimes they reverse the decision.
    • Wait. It may take a couple weeks or even months for the bureaucracy to work itself out.  They aren’t going to come actively seeking the money right away.  And when they do, they’ll work out a payment plan, usually taken out of your paycheck.
    • Read the fine print.  In some cases, ESD recollected funds given under regular unemployment when a mistaken approval was given and then reversed.  But then the applicant was in fact eligible under PUA and got the benefits again there.
    • Get help.  The Washington Unemployment Law Project is here to help pro bono.

NOTE RE: Repayment Notifications

ESD has been sending a round of repayment notification letters, causing a bit of a scare.  Some things to note:
  1. For self-employed people the system is certainly gotten better as the year has gone on, but is still struggling.  That means it might be making a mistake.  If you have multiple claims (UI and PUA, for example) out they are still working through that and it is causing some weird things to happen on the back end.
  2. If you get a letter saying you owe back payments, get on the phone with someone. DO NOT appeal it online until you've talked to someone because it can make things more complicated. DO NOT send a web message because they're backed up to APRIL on web messages. Get on hold with ESD and wait on hold and talk to an agent.
  3. The back payment letter for self-employed people is coming in as a presumptive rejection. It is happening more to self-employed people because of the conflict between UI and PUA. Likely it isn't even a credible issue - for example, it can be triggered by a simple denial of UI. While it is  a standard step in the application process for self-employed, it still triggers a scary letter auto-magically. In any case, call to resolve.  ESD have hired more agents to absorb the increased service calls.
  4. Most importantly: Don't panic.
  5. Call 800-318-6022.  If it tells you it's busy call again and again and again until you get through, and then it could be an hour on hold. Keep in mind they only have phone operators from 8 am to noon these days.

(abridged from a post by Jacqui Sandor in the COVID-19 Response for Washginton State Artists Facebook Group)

Other links & resources

Срочные вопросы о вашем здоровье?
King County Public Health Hotline