Over the last few weeks, the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have left nearly 10 million people in the US unemployed. The St. Louis Fed has estimated that the unemployment rate could reach over 32% before this is all over.
Fortunately, the recently passed CARES Act (stimulus package) extended unemployment to more people than ever before. The states — which manage unemployment claims and payments — are still learning all the details about how to get those benefits into people’s hands as quickly as possible, but help may be on the way.
If you recently lost part or all of your income, you might qualify for unemployment benefits. Here’s what you need to know about how it all works and how to file.
What is unemployment, exactly?
Unemployment insurance (“unemployment” for short) is a government benefit that provides cash to eligible people who’ve lost their job and are actively looking for a new one. It’s meant to replace part of your paycheck so that you can pay the bills until you get back on your feet.
It’s a joint effort between the federal government and the state government. Every state has a different way of going about it, but they all follow the same federal laws.
Who qualifies for it?
To be eligible, you first have to be legally allowed to work in the US, and you have to have become unemployed through “no fault of your own.” For most people, unfortunately, that means you got laid off or furloughed. If you left your job voluntarily or got fired for a legitimate reason, then you most likely wouldn’t be eligible.
Freelancers, gig workers, performing artists, people on contract work, those who work for non-profits, and people who are self-employed usually don’t qualify, but the CARES Act — aka the recent stimulus package — expanded the types of workers who are eligible. So if you become unemployed, partly unemployed, or unable to work for reasons related to the coronavirus, you should file (more on that below).
You’ll also have to meet the requirements in your state about how much you made and how much you worked during the time immediately before you lost your job (called the “base period”). You can see if you’re eligible in your state here.
How much does it pay?
Caveat: This will depend a lot on the rules in your state. But generally, the amount you might receive from unemployment will depend on how much you made before you lost your job. In many states, you could get half of your previous earnings, up to a state-specific max. Benefits usually last for up to 26 weeks (half the year), but if you still don’t have a job after that time, you might be able to apply for extended benefits.
But again, the CARES Act made some adjustments to these rules if you’re unemployed because of coronavirus. It provides for an extra $600 a week through July 31 and adds 13 more weeks of unemployment benefits for workers who have run out their other unemployment already. It also expands “work sharing” assistance for people who are still working but have reduced hours.
How do you file for unemployment?
If you need to file for unemployment, you should do it as soon as you can, because the process could take a little while. The sooner you file, the sooner you can get paid if your claim is approved.
The filing (aka application) process can be clunky in the best of times, but right now, the phone lines and website servers are pretty tied up with the recent spike in unemployed people. Even so, filing on your state’s unemployment website is almost definitely going to be the easiest, quickest way to apply.
When you file, some things you’ll usually need include:
Your name, Social Security number, contact info, bank account info (for direct deposits) and other personal identifying information
Info about your last employer, including the company name, your boss’s name, their mailing and / or physical address, and their phone number
The last date you worked, and why you aren’t working anymore
Your earnings in the last week you worked, usually starting with Sunday and ending the last day you worked
Info on all the employers you worked for over the past 18 months, including the company name and address, the dates you worked there, how many hours you worked each week, your salary or hourly wages, and why you aren’t working there anymore
They’ll also ask you if you want to have federal and (in some cases) state taxes withheld. If it’s at all possible for you right now, consider saying yes. Money you get through unemployment is taxable, so if it doesn’t get withheld now, you’ll owe it later, which could really hurt at tax time.
Once you’re done applying, the state will typically reach out to your former employer to verify the details you provided. That could take days or longer, especially with the volume of claims being processed right now. Then the state will tell you whether your claim was approved and give you instructions about next steps.
If your claim is denied, you can and should appeal it — especially right now, because states are still catching up on the new laws and guidelines under the CARES Act. The process for that varies depending on your state, but they should send you instructions when they tell you that your claim was denied.
What happens when you’re approved for unemployment benefits?
Usually, you aren’t eligible to receive any unemployment payments until one full week after your last day on the job. (If it takes longer than that to process your claim, they’d pay you retroactively back to the beginning of your eligibility.) But under the CARES Act, if you’re filing for unemployment because of the pandemic, a lot of states have waived that holding period.
Once you’re approved and eligible, you should start receiving payments pretty quickly. They’ll probably send you the money either through direct deposit or via a reloadable debit card.
Depending on the state you’re filing with, you typically have to “certify for benefits” on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. That would involve stating that you’re able and available to work, and documenting “job search activities” — like applying, interviewing, networking, searching job boards, creating a LinkedIn profile, etc — to show that you’re looking. (Although it’s possible your state might waive this requirement during the pandemic.)You aren’t legally allowed to refuse work during the week while you’re collecting unemployment, and you also have to report any income you earn from freelance and consulting gigs. FYI, that could impact how much you receive in benefits.
Finally, every state has a different cadence for how often you get paid, but usually, if you have to certify weekly, you’d get paid weekly, and so on.
Losing a job is always hard, and it’s probably going to come with a range of emotions like grief and anger. Give yourself the time and permission to feel those things. Be gentle with yourself. We have more advice for how to take care of yourself if you’ve lost your job here. And if you have money questions along the way, we’re here for you. Check out this list of anonymized questions that have come in from our community, and then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with yours — we’ll respond to you directly.
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