Do Church Employees Qualify for Unemployment Benefits?

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Since churches are exempt from unemployment taxes, church employees have historically not been eligible for unemployment benefits.  However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the economy, new federal legislation has opened the door for individuals usually ineligible for unemployment compensation, including clergy.

On April 5, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor issued its Unemployment Insurance Program Letter No. 16-20 regarding the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program created by Section 2102 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.  The Letter states that:

“The CARES Act includes a provision of temporary benefits for individuals who have exhausted their entitlement to regular unemployment compensation (UC) as well as coverage for individuals who are not eligible for regular UC (such as individuals who are self-employed or who have limited recent work history). These individuals may also include certain gig economy workers, clergy and those working for religious organizations who are not covered by regular unemployment compensation, and other workers who may not be covered by the regular UC program under some state laws.” (emphasis added)

The PUA program is available to unemployed workers that are ineligible for state benefits or Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). PUA benefits are not available for individuals working remotely with pay or individuals receiving paid sick or other leave.  

PUA provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits and those receiving PUA benefits are also eligible for a $600 weekly benefit under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program (FPUC) if they are eligible.

Unemployed workers may qualify for PUA benefits for any of the following reasons related to COVID-19:

  • Has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have symptoms and are in the process of getting a medical diagnosis.
  • Has a household member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • Is providing care for a family or household member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • Is the primary caregiver for a child or other household member who cannot attend school or other facility that has been closed due to COVID-19, which directly impacts the worker’s ability to return to work.
  • Is unable to reach their workplace either because of (1) a government-imposed quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, or (2) advice provided by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns.
  • Has been scheduled to return to work but no longer has a job or is unable to reach their workplace due to COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • Has become the primary supporter of a household because of the death of a head of household due to COVID-19.
  • Has to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19.
  • Closure of an individual’s workplace due to COVID-19.

Church employees are encouraged to speak with their state unemployment office to determine eligibility for the PUA and FPUC programs.

The Church Law Center of California assists religious and secular nonprofits with governance challenges. We can help your organization examine its board procedures and develop good practices. To find out how we can be of help to your organization, call us at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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