Biden directive expands jobless aid to more unemployed

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FILE – In this Nov. 28, 2020 file photo, a shopper wears a face mask and he walks past a store displaying a hiring sign in Wheeling, Ill. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell sharply last week but remained high by historical standards. Applications for benefits declined 111,000 from the previous week to a seasonally adjusted 730,000, the Labor Department said Thursday, Feb. 25. It is the lowest figure since late November. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Unemployed Americans who have turned down job offers because they feared their prospective employers weren’t providing sufficient protection from the coronavirus would qualify for jobless aid under a directive the Labor Department issued Thursday.

The measure would also expand a federal unemployment benefits program, established in last spring’s economic relief package, to cover workers who have lost hours or who were laid off because of the pandemic. It would also cover school employees who lose jobs or work hours because of school closings.

The federal program, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, made the self-employed and gig workers eligible for jobless aid for the first time.

“Until now, unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic have been too scattered and too uncertain,” said Patricia Smith, senior adviser to the labor secretary. “That begins to change today, with many more workers now eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.”

Speaking to reporters, department officials declined to estimate how many Americans would now become newly eligible for jobless benefits.

The benefits will be made retroactive, officials said. People who applied for unemployment benefits after Dec. 27 can receive retroactive payments back to Dec. 6. Those who applied before then and were turned down can receive retroactive payments dating back to when they first applied.

With unemployed Americans now receiving a $300 weekly federal payment on top of state benefits that average about $320 a week, the retroactive aid could result in significant lump sum payments. The department estimates that states won’t be able to update their jobless benefit systems to include the new criteria until late March, which could mean that the first payments would amount to about four months of benefits.

Workers whose employers have closed because of the pandemic are already eligible to receive jobless aid from the federal program. But workers who were laid off even as their company remained open, such as waiters at a restaurant that stayed open for delivery, weren’t eligible. This directive will now cover those workers, the Labor Department said.

For the unemployed who have turned down jobs out of concern over the coronavirus, applicants will have to state under penalty of perjury that their prospective employer wasn’t meeting state or local guidelines on mask-wearing or personal protective equipment, said Suzi Levine, a deputy assistant labor secretary.

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