Whether it’s fire, flood, earthquake, or tornado, many parts of the United States are subject to disasters. When that happens, many people might find themselves suddenly out of work and need help. That’s when Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) becomes handy.
What is Disaster Unemployment Assistance?
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1974 authorizes the President to provide benefit assistance to individuals unemployed as a direct result of a major disaster. The U.S. Department of Labor oversees the DUA program and coordinates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to provide the funds to the state unemployment insurance agencies for payment of DUA benefits as well as payment of state administration costs under agreements with the Secretary of Labor.
Notably, these funds are federally appropriated and do not come out of the employer payroll taxes used to finance the regular unemployment insurance program.
An area is eligible for DUA when the President declares it a disaster area and people become directly unemployed due to that disaster. “’Direct result of a major disaster’ means an immediate result of the disaster itself, not the result of a longer chain of events caused or worsened by the disaster,” notes the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).
Here are some examples of disasters where DUA was available:
- Some workers in Lake County, Monterey County, Napa County, Santa Cruz County, San Mateo County, Solano County, Sonoma County, and Yolo County in California in the fall of 2020 were eligible for DUA based on wildfires in those counties. Though the federal disaster wasn’t declared until September 2020, those who qualified could collect up to $450 in weekly benefits for a maximum of 27 weeks.
- Similarly, workers displaced by the historic flooding in Humphreys County, Tennessee on Aug. 21, 2021, could apply for DUA.
- Beginning Oct. 20, 2021 through Nov. 18, 2021, due to Hurricane Ida, DUA was available to New Yorkers in the following New York counties: Bronx, Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, Queens, Richmond, Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester. That was also true for Connecticut counties Fairfield, New London, and New Haven, as well as the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribal Nations.
- Kentuckians who became unemployed or who were self-employed and had work interrupted in one of 14 counties as a direct result of the severe storms, straight-line winds, flooding, and tornadoes on Dec. 10, 2021, were eligible to apply for DA benefits. The 14 counties were Caldwell, Christian, Fulton, Graves, Hart, Hickman, Hopkins, Logan, Lyon, Marshall, Muhlenberg, Ohio, Taylor, and Warren.
Who is eligible for disaster unemployment assistance?
People who lived, worked, or were scheduled to work in the declared disaster area, may qualify for assistance if they meet any of the following conditions:
- No longer have a job or place to work
- Can’t reach the job site
- Can’t work because of damage to the job site
- Were about to start a new job but, due to the disaster, the job no longer exists
- Can’t work because of an injury caused by the disaster
- Became the major support for a household because the head of household died due to the disaster
In particular, DUA is generally available to self-employed workers as well as to unemployed workers.
The operative part about DUA, though, is that the person applying needs to have been determined to be not otherwise eligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits (under any state or Federal law). However, any eligible individual whose entitlement to unemployment benefits runs out before the end of the Disaster Assistance Period (DAP) is entitled to DUA benefits for the remaining weeks of unemployment in the DAP, or until a new valid benefit year becomes available, whichever is earlier. The DAP begins with the first day of the week following the date the major disaster began and continues for up to 26 weeks after the date the disaster was declared by the President.
Temporary and seasonal workers, such as farmworkers, may be eligible for DUA only for the weeks that they would have been employed if the disaster had not occurred. For example, if a seasonal worker was scheduled to work for four weeks after the disaster and then under normal circumstances would be terminated, that worker would be eligible only for four weeks of DUA. Similarly, immigrant workers who have work authorization both at the time that they were working and while they collect benefits may qualify for DUA.
As with regular unemployment, recipients must be available and able to work, unless they meet one of two conditions:
- They have an injury caused by the disaster
- They are taking steps to return to self-employment
“DUA IS NOT INTENDED FOR PEOPLE WHO DO NOT REPORT TO WORK, IN ORDER TO STAY HOME TO DO DISASTER-RELATED CLEANUP WORK,” notes the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry office of unemployment compensation benefits. (However, people who become employed in a disaster-related cleanup and later become unemployed may again qualify to file for DUA benefits, because they continue to remain unemployed as a direct result of the disaster.)
On the other hand, some states may waive this work requirement. “We may exempt work searches if there is a lot of damage to the businesses in the disaster area, or if you have a return-to-work date within 12 weeks,” notes the TWC.
How do people apply for disaster unemployment insurance?
In the event of a disaster, the affected state will publish announcements about DUA availability. To file a claim, individuals who are unemployed as a direct result of the disaster should contact their State Unemployment Insurance agency. (That is, not through FEMA.) Individuals who have moved or have been evacuated to another state should also contact the state agency.
Individuals must follow the instructions in the announcement and file for DUA based on the filing methods used by the state, such as in person, mail, telephone, or internet. State requirements can vary.
For example, in New York, before an individual can be deemed eligible for DUA, the state Department of Labor must establish that the individual is otherwise not eligible for regular unemployment benefits under any state or federal law. Consequently, claimants must first apply for unemployment benefits over the phone. After submitting an unemployment application over the phone and being deemed ineligible for regular unemployment benefits, an agent will call the applicant to finalize the DUA application. If an agent cannot reach the applicant over the phone, they will be sent the DUA application in the mail.
In some cases, the state may set up portable or temporary stations in the disaster area to help affected people apply for their DUA.
Typically, DUA applications must be filed by an individual within 30 days of the announcement of the availability of DUA in the state. Note, that may not be the same time as when the President declares the disaster. For example, the President authorized major disaster declaration for the State of Connecticut due to Hurricane Ida on October 30, 2021, but the Connecticut Department of Labor didn’t announce the availability of DUA until November 12, 2021.
However, that application period may be extended. For example, in Louisiana, the Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC) extended the DUA application deadline through November 2, 2021 for people in counties affected by Hurricane Ida. LWC asked for the extension in to help accommodate individuals affected by extended power outages and loss of communications as they recovered from this disaster, according to news reports.
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Labor, on behalf of FEMA, extended the filing deadline for DUA benefits previously made available to fire-impacted individuals in six California counties. Eligible individuals who lost work or self-employment as a direct result of the Dixie Fire in Plumas, Lassen, and Tehama counties; the River Fire in Placer and Nevada counties; the McFarland Fire in Trinity and Tehama counties; and the Monument Fire in Trinity County, had until November 30, 2021 to apply for DUA benefits; the previous deadline was October 1.
And after the Kentucky tornadoes, the deadline to apply for this assistance is Jan. 28, 2022. An earlier deadline was extended after Kentucky’s Office of Unemployment Insurance successfully asked the federal government for an extension.
Proving eligibility for disaster unemployment insurance
Typically, within 21 days of applying for DUA, the state must have proof that individuals were either working or self-employed at the time of the disaster or scheduled to start work on or after the date of the disaster. Without proof of employment by the deadline, DUA benefits not only stop, but recipients might have to pay them back.
- Recent pay stub, earnings statement, or voucher issued just prior to the disaster
- Written statement from a disaster-affected employer, or a notarized statement from a co-worker
- Recent bank records showing payroll direct deposit
Proof for self-employment includes:
- Recent records connected to the business, such as bank records; a phone, utility or insurance bill; a sales tax return; current business license; or a State or Federal Employer Identification Number; or property titles, deeds, or a rental agreement for the place of business
- Recent newspaper, phone book, or Internet ad for the business
- Statement(s) from recent customers; or billing notices, invoices, or sales records
Proof for prospective employment is typically a letter from the potential employer that includes:
- Name and address of the employer
- Employer contact name and number
- Start date of the job
- Hours of the job
- Duration of the job
- Reason why the recipient did not start work
Proof for prospective self-employment includes:
- Property titles or deeds for the place of business
- Rental agreement or letter from a property owner showing the recipient planned to open a business at the time of the disaster
- Other evidence that the recipient was preparing to open a business, such as business loan documents, business-related receipts, advertising, state tax registration, business registration, Assumed Name Certificate, etc.
How much can disaster unemployment insurance pay?
Depending on the state, the weekly DUA benefit may be different from what a person would receive under regular unemployment. For example, some states calculate the DUA weekly benefit amount based on past wages during the base period, which is the most recently completed calendar year, January 1 through December 31. This is a different base period from regular unemployment claims.
The maximum weekly benefit amount payable is determined under the provisions of the state law for unemployment compensation in the state where the disaster occurred. However, the minimum weekly benefit amount payable is half of the average benefit amount in the state. For example, if the state average benefit is $315, then the minimum DUA weekly benefit amount would be $157.
As with regular unemployment, recipients must report earnings and commissions before deductions such as operating expenses and must actively take steps each week to return to normal business activities, unless that requirement is waived.
DUA benefits are payable only for weeks of unemployment in the DAP. However, one advantage of DUA is that it doesn’t typically require the usual one-week waiting period to receive benefits.
Like regular unemployment, DUA payments must be reported as income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), as well as to the state, if the person resides in a state that taxes unemployment benefits. As with regular unemployment, individuals may choose to have those taxes withheld from the DUA payments.