Last Updated: June 4, 2020


In this period of rapid change, defining who is “expert” on a topic has become difficult. Particularly in the case of unemployment benefits, where the process of applying varies from one state to another—and even lawmakers and state agencies are trying to make sense of it all—we have found that peer-to-peer information networks have often been the best sources of guidance. 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.


Take Action!

Congress passed the CARES Act on March 27, 2020, marking the first time that freelancers are eligible for unemployment compensation. However, the implementation of extended benefits is administered at a state and territory level by agencies that have been overwhelmed by applicants. This has led to delays and system crashes across the US. Furthermore, the existing applications were not engineered with non-traditional workers in mind. Documentary filmmakers often have multiple W-2 jobs, dozens of 1099s a year across multiple states, a separate LLC for each film, fiscal sponsors and numerous funders.

Make your voice heard by sharing your personal experience and unique economic reality with your elected official so that they can address the shortcomings in the current systems: 

  • Write a personal letter detailing your journey and the challenges you faced securing full unemployment benefits.

  • Look up your elected representatives at a state and federal level

  • Click here for general tips on writing to your legislator including proper forms of address

  • Send the letter to:

    • Your representatives in Congress (House and Senate)

    • Your representatives in your state (State House and State Senate)

    • CC:, so we can track our advocacy efforts and learn more about the challenges you are facing.


Federal Level Facts About Unemployment Compensation

The CARES Act initiated an additional $600/week pandemic pay and a 13-week extension of unemployment compensation, as well as providing up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to those who are ineligible for regular UI (e.g. self-employed, independent contractors, workers with limited work history). To find your state’s unemployment agency office, enter your state here. For some basics on applying for unemployment, read this.

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 $600/week


March 29 - July 25, 2020

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 39 weeks total, January 27 - December 31, 2020

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)

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

Varies by state

Up to 13 additional weeks after UI benefits run out March 29 - December 31, 2020



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 $600) 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 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? 

UI is meant to handle W-2 earners and PUA is meant to handle 1099 earners. But many filmmakers have earnings from both W-2s and 1099s. The state systems are currently unable to handle that complexity in a way that ensures freelancers receive the full benefits they qualify for. 

For example, if an applicant has W-2 earnings, they will get processed through the regular UI system, using only their W-2 earnings as the measure of past weekly earnings. Furthermore, participating in the regular UI system will make the applicant ineligible for PUA, which is based on their 1099 earnings. This means that mixed income workers will get less money than they should each week. There is an ongoing lobbying effort underway to request a legislative fix at a federal level that will allow for mixed-income employees to receive full benefits. See this letter from Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Judy Chu, which explains the problem and a potential solution. Let your elected officials know if you are being affected by the “mixed income loophole.”

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

  • Development in Progress: Guidance on Refusal to Work

  • 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!