December 1, 2020
Coronavirus unemployment: Who is covered, how to apply and how much it pays

Coronavirus unemployment: Who is covered, how to apply and how much it pays


Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

The human toll of the coronavirus epidemic has been immense: more than 5.6 million infected and 175,000 fatalities in the US alone. But the financial impact has been even more vast, affecting businesses — and their employees — of every size and across most industries. The government has launched a number of initiatives to help, including a stimulus payment and the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses as an incentive to keep employees on the payroll. 

Nevertheless, tens of millions of people have filed for unemployment insurance since the beginning of the outbreak. And as Congress continues to grapple with a variety of stimulus fixes and stopgaps, unemployment rolls continue to surge.

Read more: Stimulus check money: $1,200 payment could still be sent to you in 2020

Update: The current political context and outlook

The $2.2 trillion emergency relief bill that President Donald Trump signed in March reset some of the rules for unemployment benefits, expanding eligibility and ramping up payout amounts. The original CARES Act enhanced unemployment benefit has now expired, however, and Congress remains deadlocked on what to do next. Though, for now, you can still apply for unemployment benefits, the extra $600 a week has gone away.

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Under the Senate Republicans’ current stimulus proposal, called the HEALS Act, that extra $600 unemployment benefit would be cut down to $200 until Oct. 5. At that point, according to the bill, unemployed individuals would be eligible for a payout equalling roughly 70% of their previous wages through the end of 2020. The Democrats’ Heroes Act would restore the $600 weekly benefit — and extend it into 2021. While these proposed packages remain the topic of a fiery debate in Washington, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about the current state of unemployment benefits.

What is unemployment insurance?

The US government, at both the state and federal level, provides a safety net for people who lose their jobs. But eligibility requirements and benefits vary widely from state to state; you can get all of the details about your state’s specific unemployment benefits on the US Department of Labor’s website. For example, qualified Florida residents can claim up to $275 for 12 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Prior to the passage of the CARES Act, unemployment benefits were designed as a temporary stopgap to help people who were out of work cover basic expenses like housing, food and utilities. If you were self-employed or owned a business, you would typically not qualify for regular unemployment insurance. That has since changed.

Who is eligible for unemployment benefits?

In normal times, unemployment benefits are typically reserved for full-time employees who lose their jobs. With the expanded coverage, part-time and self-employed workers may now qualify. 

The CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to individuals who would not normally be eligible for unemployment benefits from the states, including gig workers, freelancers, independent contractors and small business owners whose income has been affected by the pandemic. For now, PUA funding is set to run through Dec. 31. 

You may also be eligible to collect unemployment benefits if you fall into one of these categories:

  • You or a family member have been infected by COVID-19 and cannot work.
  • You have been advised by a doctor to self-quarantine. 
  • Your workplace closed due to the coronavirus (for instance, restaurants or businesses deemed “nonessential”).
  • You’re not working because you have to care for children or other family members who would otherwise attend school or another facility.
  • College students who worked a job last year (PDF) — even a part-time one.  

How much money will I receive?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical US worker earned about $1,000 a week at the end of 2019. Weekly unemployment benefit payouts typically replace about 40 to 45% of that median paycheck amount — but vary by state; California residents, for example, get about $450 a week.

The first stimulus bill included a provision that padded those weekly state-funded unemployment benefits by $600 through July 31. If you qualified for $1 of state or federal unemployment benefits, you should have received the extra $600 payout. Looking ahead, it’s possible that Congress will again provide additional unemployment benefits, though at a lower amount. The GOP’s proposed a stimulus package, called the HEALS Act, includes a $200 extra unemployment benefit until Oct. 5; after that point, the assistance amount would combine with the states’ unemployment offerings to equal 70% of an individual’s previous wages until Dec. 31, 2020.  

Read more: When will the eviction moratorium return? August rent relief, laws  

How long will I receive unemployment benefits?

Most states’ unemployment benefits cover 26 weeks; the CARES Act extended this period by 13 weeks, giving most people a total of 39 weeks of coverage. Florida residents, for example, who formerly received unemployment benefits for 12 weeks, are now covered for a total of 25 weeks. Note that if you had already exhausted all of your state-provided unemployment benefits, you could reapply for the federal program’s additional 13 weeks. 

For now, it’s unclear whether or for how long future legislation would expand this coverage period.

What if I was furloughed?

In contrast to a layoff — in which a job is permanently eliminated — a furlough is closer to a temporary leave of absence. Furloughed workers sometimes continue to receive some benefits including health insurance. 

Unemployment benefits for furloughed employees vary from state to state. But the first stimulus bill provided expanded coverage, so that even furloughed employees could receive unemployment benefits. And, unlike workers who were laid off, furloughed employees do not have to provide proof of having lost their job.

Who’s not covered?

If you’re working from home or on paid leave, you don’t qualify for the updated unemployment benefits. And you are unlikely to be covered if you’re technically able to work but would prefer not to due to fears about the coronavirus. But if you were required to quarantine due to potential exposure to the coronavirus, you are eligible. Frankly, the language in the bill is a little fuzzy; and, ultimately, it’s up to individual states to determine whether you’re eligible or not. The bottom line is, the only way to know for sure is to apply. 

Read more: Coronavirus hardship loans: What they are, how they work and how to get one

When can I apply?

Immediately. Before the stimulus package was passed, you had to wait at least a week to receive benefits, but many states have now waived the waiting period. 

How do I apply for unemployment insurance?

There’s no federal system for unemployment benefits, which means you’ll need to apply through your state’s individual system. Find your state’s program here.

Read more: You lost your job because of coronavirus. These resources can help

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