How are unemployment benefits affecting the construction industry?

In 2020, approximately 11,300 jobs were lost in the construction industry. From December 2019 to December 2020, Massachusetts lost 335,500 jobs in general. The construction industry was in the top four industries that lost the most workers.

In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) to provide emergency aid and unemployment insurance benefits (UI) to workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For construction worker employees, this allowed them to collect unemployment benefits if employers shut down the business. There was also a provision for providing unemployment benefits for independent contractors.

Unemployment Benefits for Construction Worker Employees: Work Search Requirements

Two provisions of the CARES Act for all employees are that: 1) The employee does not have to be laid off the job; 2) The employee does not have to be actively searching for a new job.  

In Massachusetts, effective June 15, 2021, the statewide COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. With only a few exceptions, some of the pre-COVID requirements for unemployment benefits for all employees, including construction workers, were put in place.

Beginning with the work benefit week of June 13, 2021, the following rules apply:

  • Claimants must attest that they made at least three work search activities per week to maintain eligibility for unemployment benefits. 
  • Claimants must keep a log of their work search activities. They may be asked to provide the log to the Department of Unemployment Insurance Administration (DUA). The claimant must keep the logs for one year.
  • In most cases, claimants will still receive the special COVID-related $300 weekly stipend even if they return to work. The stipend is offered through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, which is part of the CARES Act.
  • Claimants will report wages from new employment which will be deducted from their UI benefits. They will still be eligible for the $300 weekly stipend under FPUC until their new income reaches 133 percent of their weekly UI benefit. The $300 stipend will not be affected.
  • The $300 stipend will end the first week of September.
  • Claimants will no longer be able to cite COVID-related concerns as reasons for not accepting an offer of employment.
  • Employers may report to the Department of Unemployment Assistance any furloughed employee who refuses to come back to work. Reporting is not mandatory.

Unemployment Benefits for Independent Contractors

A construction company may hire independent contractors, such as dry-wall installers, electricians, plumbers, and others to complete the construction project-based tasks. Their work is short-term and unemployment insurance is not deducted from their pay.

Independent contractors generally are not eligible for unemployment benefits. In March 2020, Massachusetts became one of the first states to provide them unemployment benefits. The CARES Act provided for them to also receive unemployment benefits. In addition, all workers who qualified for state unemployment benefits received an extra $600 from the federal government. The FPUA program allows independent contractors up to 79 weeks of UI benefits.

The CARES Act, and FPUA benefits which are part of it, are currently scheduled to expire September 6, 2021. Although currently it appears there will be no renewal of benefits provided under these two provisions, the future is uncertain. Benefit recipients need to follow the law closely so if the pandemic rages again, they will know whether they are eligible for unemployment benefits and if so, what the requirements are for receiving them.