Unemployment for Freelancers

LAST UPDATED: June 11, 2020

A Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for Unemployment Insurance Benefits

Freelancer Edition

Prepared by the Office of Senator Scott D. Wiener (D-San Francisco)


Below is an update on Unemployment Insurance (UI) payments for freelancers, the self-employed, and gig-workers who fall under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program created by the federal CARES Act. PUA also applies to those who have exhausted their UI benefits.

The application process for PUA has now been launched, as of April 28, 2020. You can apply through EDD's online unemployment insurance portal.

Below is what we know about the PUA application process so far: 

  • You will be able to self-certify your wages on the application. This will allow the process to move more quickly. EDD is saying that eligible PUA applicants will be authorized to receive their unemployment benefits within 24-48 hours of applying. However, if you have not previously had unemployment benefits and do not have an EDD debit card from Bank of America on which to receive the benefits, you may need to wait up to a week in order to receive the benefits.
  • PUA provides for a minimum payment of $167 per week. The maximum is $450 per week. This is the same for unemployment insurance. At first, EDD will pay everyone the same base amount - the minimum of $167 per week (plus $600 in federal money for eligible weeks) - in order to get benefits out as quickly as possible. EDD will then go back, determine what you are actually owed based on your wages, and pay you whatever additional funds you are owed.
  • You can apply for benefits that are back-dated up to the first week of February, or whenever you first were economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Applying later will not reduce the total amount you receive. 
  • When certifying your 10-99 income, report your income in the weeks you actually received payment, no matter when you performed the service. If you performed services, but didn’t receive income that week, then you do not need to report any income for that week.
  • PUA will also allow you to access the additional $600 per week made available through the CARES Act. This is in addition to your $167 - $450 of weekly state benefits. These benefits were available to others on existing unemployment claims starting the week of March 29, and as of now are available through July 25th. If you apply and back-date your claim, then you will get those additional funds for any week after March 29th for which you receive PUA benefits, until July.
  • If you are an independent contractor and previously applied for UI, but you were disqualified or given $0 in UI awards, you DO NOT need to contact EDD or do anything to cancel or appeal their previous UI application before applying for PUA. Please note that some independent contractors who previously applied for UI before PUA was rolled out and were denied are now having trouble accessing a new application in order to apply for PUA. We believe that this has been fixed in many accounts over the last several days, but if people continue to have problems, they can reach out to our office. 
  • If you earned any income from W2 employee wages during the pay period, you generally cannot apply for PUA - even if your primary source of income comes from your freelance work. 
    • Unfortunately, the federal CARES Act only created PUA for people who could not qualify for any amount of existing state UI. As such, you can still access regular UI - but only the wages for the W2 work will be counted in calculating your weekly award amount. For some independent contractors, W-2 wages may be so low that they are disqualified from regular UI due to "insufficient earnings" on the basis of your W-2 wages. In that case, you could then apply for PUA. 
    • We understand that for many independent contractors, W2 work makes up a very small portion of income. Changing this requires a federal fix, and we have been working with EDD and Speaker Pelosi’s office on the issue. Please contact our office at farris.peale@sen.ca.gov if you would like to receive an update on this issue.
  • If you also took out a federal PPP loan, you may still be able to qualify for PUA. However, if you are using that money to pay yourself, it will count as income when determining whether you have lost sufficient wages to qualify and when determining what amount you are eligible on a weekly basis. You should report any PPP money you are paying yourself to EDD when certifying. 

There are some other resources available to you now. Independent contractors and self-employed people are eligible to apply for federal Paycheck Protection Programs (PPP) loans, another program created through the CARES act. In most cases, you should be able to apply through your current bank. More information about federal resources here