Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment insurance benefits provided a vital lifeline for workers and their families. As businesses closed, childcare options dwindled, and unemployment rates skyrocketed, millions of workers relied on UI benefits to pay their basic living expenses. In response to the unprecedented scale of the unemployment crisis caused by COVID-19, federal and state governments made significant, albeit temporary, changes to the UI system. Federal interventions expanded UI eligibility, duration, and benefit amounts, allowing many families to keep up with their rent, buy food, and pay their bills, while sustaining the Massachusetts economy. Additionally, in response to temporary flexibilities provided in federal law, the Massachusetts legislature and DUA made important adjustments to traditional UI eligibility criteria, which remained in place throughout much of 2020 and 2021.
While many of the most significant changes to the unemployment system expired on September 6, 2021, there remains a significant backlog of cases from this time period which will implicate the COVID-related measures enacted at the federal and state levels in 2020 and 2021. Indeed, federal law requires DUA to continue administering certain components of the federally funded COVID-related programs while issues remain to be adjudicated on existing claims, and—though the last week for which federal benefits were payable was the week ending September 4, 2021—to accept new applications for retroactive benefits in limited circumstances. Advocates should thus continue to assess whether claimants may benefit from the COVID-related UI benefit programs and eligibility changes highlighted in this section. Further, while the major existing COVID-related UI programs and policy changes made to this point are outlined below, advocates should monitor and search for updated guidance likely to be issued as the U.S. Department of Labor and state agencies continue to identify and respond to challenges in the administration of COVID-related UI programs and policies.
Moreover, though many COVID-related benefit programs and eligibility adjustments have expired—and despite some baselessly attempting to pin so-called “labor shortages” on the availability of expanded UI benefits—it is clear that the pandemic continues to evolve, generate uncertainty, and produce significant short- and long-term consequences for millions of workers and their families. Thus, while formal eligibility adjustments may have expired, advocates should continue to consider how the ongoing effects of COVID-19, such as new developments in public health risks and guidance, workplace safety concerns, and unpredictable childcare disruptions, may support claimant eligibility under traditional eligibility criteria for issues such as job suitability or whether a claimant had good cause to restrict their availability.