Youth unemployment is known to skyrocket during times of recession, and that rate includes students: 11 million college students are workers, with over 75 percent of them working twenty or more hours per week. According to the HOPE Center at Temple University, two in three students who were employed prior to the pandemic experienced some kind of job insecurity. Many of these students do not qualify for traditional unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, and so the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefit that was established by the CARES Act is an immensely important source of aid for students in need. But so far, states have done little to remove barriers for students who could access this support, and one has even established roadblocks.

Student Ineligibility for Traditional Unemployment Insurance

When a working person becomes unemployed, they can file a claim to access benefit payments from the traditional unemployment insurance program; typically, the benefit period lasts no longer than six months, although this can sometimes be subject to extension, especially in periods of economic downturn and recession. After the first twenty-six weeks of benefit payments, people are able to access the permanent Extended Benefits (EB) program, which will give access to another thirteen to twenty weeks of compensation, depending on the individual state’s UI laws and unemployment rate.

Many states’ UI programs, however, have language that excludes students. (See Table 1.) For instance, Vermont’s UI program disqualifies students from unemployment insurance benefits if they were part-time employees, reasoning that they can still seek part-time work. Nebraska and Wyoming disqualify students, unless a majority of their base pay per week (BPW) was for services performed while attending school. Many states also have requirements that, in order to qualify for benefits, a student must state or demonstrate that they are willing to change schedules, or even drop out, to accomodate an offer of work.

Table 1
Student Eligibility for Traditional Unemployment Insurance Under State Law
Student Eligibility Status States Number of States
Eligible for benefits similar to other workers DC, GA, IN, CO, DE, FL, IA, KY, MS, MT, NJ, NY, NC, NV, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, TN, NO, WV 23
Ineligible, with certain exceptions related to availability and willingness to change schedules and do shift work or in state approved training AL, AZ, CA, CT, LA,AK, KS, ME, MO, NE, ND, RI, TX, VT, VA, WI, WY 17
Ineligible, except if schooling is approved training IL, HI, AR, ID, MA, MI, NM, SD, WA, MN 10
Source: “Comparison of State Unemployment Laws 2019,” U.S. Department of Labor,

The Inadequate State Implementation of PUA

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was introduced in the CARES Act as an emergency measure to respond to the massive job displacement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program provides federally funded benefits to those who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 layoffs or business closures, and the program includes groups in the workforce who are traditionally denied normal, state-funded unemployment insurance, such as independent contractors, part-time workers, and others. The Department of Labor’s April FAQ clarified that certain students should be able to qualify for PUA benefits, depending on the students’ circumstances.

Though the benefit is federally funded, it is the states that administer the program, and thus play a critical role in ensuring student access to this benefit. Unfortunately, many states have done little to make the benefit easy to claim. For example, most states have failed at even the simple step of providing clarity on student eligibility for the benefit on state unemployment insurance websites and application materials. In the implementation of PUA across fifty states, only four states we found explicitly mention student eligibility on their websites: Alaska, California, Maine, and Michigan. The first three states have clarified that students can qualify for PUA, provided that they were working part-time and can no longer do that due to COVID-19. Maine has also specified that even students under the age of 18 may be eligible. Michigan has only recently clarified that college students can still qualify for benefits and that there is no downward age limit on applying for unemployment.

Despite the clarity provided by the federal Department of Labor in its FAQ, at least one state is still throwing up roadblocks to students who want to access PUA benefits. Minnesota stands alone as the only state to interpret PUA to disqualify students, outright banning high school students from receiving PUA. (It is worth noting that Minnesota also disqualifies high school students from receiving regular unemployment insurance.) In most of Minnesota’s neighboring states, students can qualify for traditional unemployment insurance, provided that their schooling does not interfere with the ability to accept shifts for work.

Part of the problem states have in communicating with students about their eligibility for PUA may be systemic. Because the student population is often left out of discussions of traditional unemployment insurance, schools, state and local agencies, and nonprofits may be unfamiliar with this new form of support that is now available to students. The examples of Alaska, California, Maine, and Michigan should be followed but there is also much more important action to be taken. Furthermore, activists in states like Minnesota should be supported as they fight for their ability to access unemployment. States can do more not only to streamline the process for their students by providing clearer information on their websites about eligibility, but also to do more outreach to work with schools, state financial aid agencies, youth services agencies, student governments, and others to get the word out.

Looking Forward

Given the way in which students have suffered during the pandemic—losing not only their access to campus resources, such as food and housing, but also for many, their source of income—states need to make a greater effort to help students access the unemployment insurance benefits for which they are eligible. While a small number of states have made efforts to clarify student accessibility to PUA, states need to ensure that students actually receive those benefits.

header photo: Unemployed Kentucky residents enter the Kentucky Career Center for help with their unemployment claims as hundred more wait in long lines outside for help with their unemployment claims in Frankfort, Kentucky.