Underpaid Jobless Benefits: You Might Qualify for Back Pay

A woman looks confused as she walks away from an unemployment building in IL.
A woman reacts as she leaves after she checked information signs at IDES (Illinois Department of Employment Security) WorkNet center in Arlington Heights, Ill., Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who have collected Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, there’s a chance that your weekly benefit amount was miscalculated — and that you might qualify for back pay.

The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, released a sprawling report on the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Among many things, the agency took aim at the implementation of 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,” according to the report. “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.”

The Department of Labor confirmed the underpayment issue to The Penny Hoarder but has not released a list of states that may have underpaid beneficiaries.

“We cannot say for certain which states adopted the approach of initially paying PUA minimum benefits to facilitate implementation,” explained Tom Costa, who led the GAO report. “DOL officials told us that most states took this approach.”

According to the GAO’s analysis, it’s likely that about 27 states used this method.

Here’s how to find out if you were underpaid and claim your back pay.

What Happened With Pandemic Unemployment Assistance?

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was created with the passage of the CARES Act in March. It’s been a lifeline for gig workers and independent contractors who would not otherwise qualify for unemployment benefits,but the program was marred by delays.

It took weeks to implement as states awaited guidance from the Department of Labor and then scrambled to create new application systems separate from regular unemployment insurance.It took some states until May to start accepting applications. To expedite the payment process, the majority of states approved recipients for the minimum allowable benefit.

The CARES Act defines the minimum PUA benefit as half a state’s average unemployment payment. The lowest average state payment is $181 in Louisiana; the highest is $449 in Maryland. Minimum weekly PUA payments, half of the average, should range from about $90 to $224.

After implementing the program, states were supposed to readjust the payment amount based on a portion of your income last year. The GAO’s analysis suggests that most states did not do that.

How to Get PUA Back Pay

If your state miscalculated your weekly benefit amount, you are entitled to the correct amount retroactively for each week you qualified for benefits, according to the DOL.

Regardless of when you were approved for benefits, you may be eligible for a maximum of 39 weeks of PUA payments between Jan. 27 through Dec. 31 if you can prove you were out of work during that time period, referred to as the Pandemic Assistance Period.

“Claimants may provide that documentation at any time during the Pandemic Assistance Period,” the DOL told The Penny Hoarder in an email. “If it justifies the higher weekly benefit amount, the state must pay the claimant the difference for the entire time they were eligible for PUA.”

If you don’t take action before that deadline, you won’t receive any back pay.

“If the claimant does not provide the documentation, they are not considered to have been underpaid,” the DOL added.

It may be difficult to determine if your state miscalculated your benefit. The first place to start is contacting the agency that approved your initial PUA claim.

“Individuals should check with their state unemployment insurance office about potential PUA back payments,” Costa said. “The exact procedures — or where to submit this documentation — may vary somewhat by state.”

Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He covers the gig economy, remote work and other unique ways to make money. Read his ​latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.