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Navigating US Unemployment Compensation as a Filmmaker

A peer-to-peer resource for navigating state-based unemployment programs.

Last Updated: January 12, 2021


Although increases in unemployment compensation during the pandemic have been funded at a federal level, the administration of those benefits occurs at a state level. The  process of applying varies from one state to another and it has been challenging to offer guidance on navigating the process from a national perspective. In the last year,  peer-to-peer information networks have often been the best sources of guidance in understanding how to best secure benefits in an individual state. Through conversations with dozens of filmmakers and examination of available external resources, we have gathered common problems faced by independent filmmakers and the best approaches in applying for unemployment benefits. This page will continue to be updated with new developments. 

This resource currently includes information about the federal law that applies across the country, as well as state-specific tip sheets for three states with high concentrations of IDA members: California, New York and Illinois. We would like to add additional states moving forward and invite you to contact us if you are able to take the lead on developing a tip sheet for your state.

**To find your state’s unemployment agency office, enter your state here. For some basics on applying for unemployment, read this.**

Federal Level Facts About Unemployment Compensation

The early 2020 pandemic relief bills from Congress added $600/week pandemic pay and a 13-week extension of unemployment compensation, provided up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to those who have historically been ineligible for regular UI (e.g. self-employed, independent contractors, workers with limited work history). At the end of July, the $600 weekly increase expired and, for many workers, the extended 39-week period was set to expire at the end of 2020. 

The Economic Aid Act passed on December 27, 2020 provided funding to allow for an extension of benefits across all categories. The chart below reflects updates from the December bill.

Program Name




Unemployment Insurance (UI)

Traditional benefits for W-2 employees

Varies by state

Typically 26 weeks, although varies by state

Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC)

Emergency program that increases traditional UI by $300/week


December 26, 2020  - March 14, 2021

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

Temporary federal program that provides benefits to self-employed workers with 1099, K1, and/or schedule C income

Varies by state

Up to 50 weeks total (previously was 39), until March 14, 2021

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)

Temporary program that provides up to 13 weeks of additional benefits after exhausting UI

Varies by state

Up to 24 additional weeks after UI benefits run out, (previously was 13), through March 14, 2021

Mixed Earner Supplemental Benefits

Temporary program that provides supplement for people who have a mix of W-2 and 1099 income


Through March 14, 2021



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What determines the amount of my weekly benefit?

For UI (traditional benefit), PUA (freelancer benefit), and PEUC (the extension), the amount of weekly unemployment benefits is based on past weekly earnings. Each state has a different maximum weekly payment and most state agencies have a benefits calculator on their site. PUC (the extra $300) is a flat amount each week that is added to your weekly benefit. You qualify for PUC automatically once you qualify for the UI, PUA, or PEUC.

I have never been eligible for unemployment benefits before because I am a freelancer and all of my income comes from 1099s. Am I now eligible?

Congress has greatly expanded the category of people eligible for unemployment benefits during the pandemic. The fact that you were not eligible before does not necessarily mean that you are not eligible now.

I am a mixed-income earner (W-2 and 1099), but my weekly UI benefit is only being calculated based on my W-2 earnings. How can I get a weekly benefit amount that is based on my combined W-2 and 1099 earnings?  *UPDATED ANSWER*

The December bill included language to address mixed earners for the first time. While previously mixed earners were having their benefit calculated on their W-2 earnings alone, now benefits will be calculated based on either W-2 or 1099 earnings, whichever is greater.

The recipient will then have $100 added to their weekly benefit to make up for the other income that wasn’t counted in the calculation. To be eligible for the additional benefit, you must have at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income but be disqualified from receiving PUA because you are eligible for regular state unemployment benefits, too.

What if I earned income in multiple states?

Unfortunately, earning in multiple states has become a hurdle in the process for some applicants. If you earned in multiple states, it may slow down the processing of your application and/or make it impossible for you to complete your application online. If you are having an otherwise inexplicable delay in qualifying for and receiving benefits, inquire with your unemployment office about how to overcome the hurdles that exist for multi-state earners in your state. And share your story of multi-state earnings and any issues you are having with your elected officials.

When I see language that says I must have “been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic” in order to qualify for benefits, how is that defined?

Current guidance extends PUA to individuals who are

  • quarantined or have contracted COVID-19, 
  • are caring for family members with COVID-19, or 
  • have had their places of employment shut down because of COVID-19.

Some states are choosing to interpret the existing statute in generous ways that allow for anyone who has lost work to access federal support. However, this definition has caused confusion and could be misinterpreted by states to exclude hundreds of thousands of freelancers who have experienced canceled contracts due to the sharp decline in the economy. Please let us know if you have been denied PUA in your state due to a more restrictive interpretation of the law.

IDA has joined other organizations in calling on Congress to ensure that any freelancer who has experienced a decline in work due to the pandemic economy will qualify for PUA. Contact your elected officials today and advocate for your rights to unemployment benefits.

What if my state “reopens”? Can I still qualify for unemployment?

Different state and local governments will define “reopening” in different ways. There are growing concerns in some parts of the country that if an area “re-opens” and someone is offered the opportunity to go back to work, but chooses not to because they don’t feel safe, that they won’t qualify for unemployment benefits. This is an evolving situation and is an area where we expect there may be disputes regarding qualifying (or “certifying”) for weekly benefits. 

If this happens to you and you are denied benefits, document your situation carefully and consider filing an appeal. You can read about what the National Employment Law Project is doing to remedy this issue. If you decide to file an appeal, consult your state’s unemployment website for more detailed tips on how to appeal your claim. You may benefit from the advice of a labor lawyer and we recommend looking up pro-bono legal services in your area here if you cannot afford private counsel. Many legal aid and legal services offices also have hotlines and online resources specifically to address problems with unemployment claims.

**On 5/14/20, California was the first state to release clear guidelines around this topic. See newly-released FAQs on the California unemployment website or our California Tip Sheet for the state’s guidance around benefits eligibility if you are offered work that feels unsafe to you.

I applied for PUA in April and didn’t hear back for over a month. In the meantime, I applied for and received a PPP loan as a sole proprietor. Yesterday, I finally heard back from the unemployment agency and learned that I have qualified for PUA. What should I do? Can I receive both?

You can not accept PUA and PPP funds for the same period of time. PPP funds are essentially your “paycheck.” It means you are not “unemployed.” Once you are no longer receiving paychecks from your PPP funds, if you have not gone back to work, you will then be considered “unemployed” again. You can re-open your existing claim and start certifying again. Follow the rules about certifying weekly in your state very carefully. Also, please consult PPP forgiveness procedures very carefully.


State Level Tip Sheets About Unemployment Compensation

As noted above, we started tip sheets on the following states due to the high concentration of IDA membership in them. If you have had experiences with UI or PUA and have the time to take the lead on developing a tip sheet for your state, please contact us at We’d like to add more state-specific tip sheets.

California          New York          Illinois


Additional Resources

  • "Unemployment Benefits: Here’s What Changes With The New Stimulus Package" by Forbes, 12/28/20 Read More

  • Federal Dept of Labor Outline of Unemployment Benefits during COVID-19 Outbreak (This will guide you to your state’s unemployment office for details on how to apply in your state, but this site clearly lays out what you are entitled to, regardless of which state you live in, due to national legislation passed at the end of March) READ MORE

  • Unemployment Benefits information portal, sponsored by US Department of Labor Access Now

  • Fact Sheet on Immigrant Workers' Eligibility for Unemployment Benefits from the National Employment Law Project READ MORE

  • Filmmaker's Guide To Applying For US Coronavirus Federal Relief Read More

  • IDA Grants Directory with artist emergency grants

If you find this resource helpful, please consider supporting IDA's work by becoming a member or making a donation if you are able. Every little helps!