Millions of displaced workers receiving unemployment benefits during the coronavirus outbreak are getting an extra $600 a week and other much-needed financial relief. While most aspects of applying for and receiving unemployment benefits have remained the same, some displaced workers are reaping larger-than-normal benefits following temporary changes to the system.
Congress and President Trump have recently enacted new policies to help the more than 36.4 million who have filed jobless claims as of May 9. COVID-19 has shut down over a quarter of the U.S. economy prompting the enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which gives states permission to expand unemployment benefits.
The bill’s programs aim mostly to protect those directly affected by the virus' spread, including people who wouldn’t have previously qualified for benefits. Gig workers, furloughed employees, parents without childcare options, and more have increased access to aid. In addition, those who already qualify for benefits could now earn more pay than they’d usually receive from their employers, for longer, The New York Times reported on April 23. The Times found that some unemployed workers in at least 30 states were collecting weekly benefits that exceeded their normal wages.
This might be affecting their pursuit of employment. Job searches on Google are down. The number of searches between March 1, 2020 to April 22, 2020 is far below where it was during the same period last year, despite the unemployment rate recently hitting historic, never-before-seen highs.
Among the likely reasons for the drop in job searches is that some out-of-work workers who have been able to land unemployment benefits are content to collect them because of the temporary windfall. In fact, reports claim that some unemployed workers are actually angry when employers call them back to work, because they could lose these greater unemployment benefits if they refuse to go back to their old jobs.
But this good fortune may be short-lived as the additional aid could end in August. Here is a look at what has changed for the unemployed since the passage of the CARES Act.
Applying for regular unemployment benefits has not changed
A major silver lining in this storm is that the criteria to qualify for unemployment benefits have only been expanded. If you were a full-time employee and it’s not your fault that you lost your job, you’re likely entitled to aid.
The amount offered is calculated based on the amount of time you worked for an employer, how much money you made there, and whether or not you were already paying into your state’s unemployment system via taxes on your paychecks. Just as before the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll need to apply through your individual state’s program to find out if you qualify for benefits.
How unemployment benefits have been expanded
If you were laid off:
If your situation is as "simple" as having been recently laid off from a full-time job held for a base period determined by individual states — typically a year or more — you’re likely in a position to see the biggest increase in unemployment benefits.
Through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, anybody already eligible for regular unemployment benefits qualifies for a weekly $600 increase lasting through July. According to the U.S. Labor Department, the average recipient receives only $378 per week, meaning the added FPUC funds make for a significant boost of almost 60 percent.
Additionally, while the exact criteria may differ from state-to-state, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program allows for an extension of benefits up to 13 weeks. The Department of Labor says “most individuals” who have already exhausted their benefits should qualify so long as their state has implemented the program, which is scheduled to end Dec. 31, 2020.
Finally, while the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is mostly meant to provide funds to gig workers and others traditionally ineligible for benefits, many who have exhausted their 13 weeks of PEUC benefits will be eligible for the remaining weeks of the PUA 39-week benefit period. This program has a federal end date of Dec. 31, 2020, though some states plan to end the payments earlier in the month.
If you were fired or quit:
Unemployment benefits are awarded far less often to those who are terminated or leave their jobs of their own free will. However, due to the possibility of people being forced to work in unsafe conditions, quitting or being fired are no longer quite as prohibitive to qualifying for benefits.
You might be able to successfully file an unemployment claim if:
- You’ve been advised by a healthcare professional to self-isolate, keeping you from working safely.
- Health complications after having COVID-19 made you unable to perform your job, resulting in you being forced to quit or being fired.
- You’re unable to get to work thanks to a stay-at-home order or quarantine, and were fired or quit as a result.
- You’re able to prove your employer put you at greater, unnecessary risk of exposure to COVID-19 without providing proper protective equipment and training, and there is not sufficient time for OSHA to first intervene by performing an inspection of the workplace.
If you were terminated from or quit your job for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, it will be much more difficult to qualify for unemployment benefits. Regarding cases of the latter, the Department of Labor put it simply, "Voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible for PUA."
If you were furloughed:
Those who have been furloughed are in a unique position, as they’re still technically employed but without pay until their employer (and in this case, local governments) decide it’s safe to go back to work. Luckily, state unemployment offices see little distinction between furloughs and layoffs when it comes to providing week-to-week unemployment benefits.
If you’re furloughed and need financial assistance, file your claim as soon as possible, keeping in mind your state will likely require you to actively seek new work in exchange for benefits. If you don’t want to replace your current full-time job, applying for temporary or part-time roles should still satisfy this rule and make you eligible to receive your checks.
If you were a gig worker or otherwise unqualified for normal benefits:
Gig workers (and most others ineligible for regular benefits) can apply for PUA if their income is reduced or cut off thanks to the coronavirus. Each person’s eligibility depends on decisions made by their state as well as their “personal circumstances,” according to the DOL.
Again, PUA benefits can be awarded for up to 39 weeks. They’re available retroactively from January 27 to Dec. 31, 2020. The amount dispersed depends on the recipient’s previous income and cannot exceed their state or territory’s maximum weekly rate of benefits, which ranges from $190 in Puerto Rico to $823 in Massachusetts.
PUA recipients, who typically must have been self-employed, looking for part-time employment, or otherwise unqualified for regular unemployment benefits need to be able to prove their livelihoods were interrupted by COVID-19, specifically. This applies to you if:
- You were officially diagnosed with COVID-19 by a healthcare professional.
- You live with someone who has been diagnosed with the virus.
- You’re caring for a family member or someone you live with who has been diagnosed.
- You are the primary caregiver of someone unable to attend school or another facility that closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and this is preventing you from working.
- You’re unable to get to work thanks to a stay-at-home order or quarantine.
- You have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-isolate after being potentially exposed to or testing positive for the COVID-19.
- You are the primary earner of income in your household after the previous primary earner died as a result of the coronavirus.
- You are no longer able to perform your job duties following being diagnosed with the virus (even if you’ve recovered).
- You made reportable income as an independent contractor and COVID-19 has limited your ability to continue earning money.
Keep in mind that each state is independently responsible for interpreting and enacting these program guidelines. Rollout of these expansions has seen widespread delays as states continue to allocate resources and iron out exactly who is eligible. If you’re waiting for news on how to qualify for and receive PUA benefits, check with your state for updates.
Kids keeping you from working at home? You may qualify for benefits
As mentioned in the breakdown of PUA above, some "primary caregivers" are eligible for benefits if they’ve been directly affected by the coronavirus in the right way.
If you are the primary caregiver of a child too young to take care of themselves (i.e., feeding, clothing, bathing, etc.) and the responsibility of caring for them is keeping you from working, you’re likely eligible for benefits. The DOL says the child “must require such ongoing and constant attention that it is not possible for you to perform your customary work functions at home.”
Additionally, if you’re being kept from working because your child’s summertime care facility is closed specifically "as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency," you should continue to qualify for PUA funds.
If you’re called back to work, you’re no longer eligible
Yet another normal feature of unemployment benefits remains true during the coronavirus pandemic. As soon as you’re able to go back to work, you’re no longer eligible for benefits. This applies to every single worker in the United States. No matter if you’ve been laid off, furloughed, fired or were a contractor: If you’re employed, you can’t claim unemployment.
How and when will my money arrive?
While many states are still working to update their unemployment programs’ infrastructure to accommodate a massive influx of applicants, those that have already implemented expanded benefits are typically following their existing methods for delivering payment. In other words, if a state typically pays by check, for example, people receiving benefits now will likely also receive their funds via a paper check. (There have been some reports of people receiving expanded benefits by a separate delivery method, but not many.)
And the assistance may be coming even faster. Some states, like California, have waived their usual one-week waiting period in favor of paying people faster. Be sure to check with your own state about waived waiting times, delivery methods and any other potential adjustments to normal benefits services.
How long will I receive benefits?
The CARES Act expanded the length of time people qualify for benefits. While the rules about how long you can collect unemployment vary from state to state, everyone who is currently unemployed is eligible for an additional 13 weeks of benefits.
In New Jersey, for example, the normal benefit period is 26 weeks. But, with the additional 13 weeks granted by the CARES Act, those on unemployment in New Jersey are now eligible for up to 39 weeks of benefits.