BOSTON — A federal law has allowed parents who couldn't work during the pandemic, because they had to stay home with children in remote learning, to collect pandemic unemployment assistance benefits.
But with most Massachusetts school districts reopening this week for full-time, in-person instruction, those who've been claiming those benefits could soon lose them.
The state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said in a statement that under rules for the federal unemployment program individuals whose children can return to school "would have to choose another eligibility reason in the weekly PUA benefits certification to continue to be eligible."
The federal CARES Act provided PUA benefits to an individual who is considered a "primary caregiver" of a child who is at home due to a forced school closure that directly results from the COVID-19 public health emergency.
For parents to claim the unemployment benefits as caregivers, their children "must require such ongoing and constant attention that it is not possible for you to perform your customary work functions at home," according to guidance released by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is requiring districts to resume full in-person learning for kindergarten through eighth grade beginning this month. Elementary schools reopened the week of April 5. Middle schoolers are returning to classrooms by Wednesday. No date has been set yet for high schools to fully reopen.
A majority of districts have already reopened and the state has granted waivers to only a handful of districts, including Gloucester, Beverly and Methuen, to delay a return to full-time, in-class instruction for middle schoolers. Students have also been given the option to remain in remote learning for the remainder of the school year.
Gloucester’s waiver was for O'Maley Innovation Middle School, to which students are set to return Wednesday, April 28. The city's elementary schoolchildren returned to full days of in-person learning on April 5.
It's not clear how many collecting jobless benefits could be affected by reopening. The state didn't say how many people have claimed PUA benefits as caregivers.
The PUA program provides jobless benefits to self-employed and gig economy workers as well as others who don't qualify for traditional state unemployment benefits.
There were at least 261,195 ongoing claims for pandemic unemployment assistance benefits in Massachusetts in the week that ended April 3, a drop of more than 13,000 from the prior week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's weekly jobless claims report.
Advocates say the state has not done a good job at letting people know that their unemployment benefits may lapse as a result of schools reopening. They worry that some could be shut off, or accused of fraud by claiming benefits for which they are no longer qualified.
Monica Halas, lead staff attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, said there are a lot of nuances to the pandemic unemployment assistance rules that would allow people at risk of losing the benefits to continue receiving them. She said even with schools reopening, some people could still claim the unemployment benefits
"If they have a child who can't wear a mask, or if their immune system is compromised, or for some other reason they can't go to school they can still get benefits," she said.
Caregivers also qualify for PUA benefits if there is someone in their household who could be put at risk for exposure to COVID-19 by allowing a child to return to school.
"If having your child going to school puts you or someone in your immediate family at risk that's another reason to collect," Halas said. "The important thing for people to know is if they have options."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org