A staggering number of Americans have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus, and the number of workers filing for unemployment benefits continues to soar.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed by Congress and then signed into law on March 27, 2020, bolstering states' ability to offer more unemployment benefits to a broader range of people.
"There have been some important expansions to the program," says Fairfield, N.J. unemployment attorney Alix Rubin. But as is the case in any crisis, it's critical to check the latest updates to legislation and rules with their state unemployment offices.
Here is what you need to know now.
CARES Act basics
Even though states administer unemployment insurance benefits, the CARES Act made some important changes and enhancements to these programs. First, the law allowed states to extend unemployment benefits by up to 13 weeks under the new Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program. PEUC benefits are available for weeks of unemployment beginning after your state implements the new program and ending with weeks of unemployment ending on or before Dec. 31, 2020.
The new law also added an additional $600 per week in compensation on top of what your state already awards. (Calculations and amounts vary by state. Check with your state for more information.) In addition, the law extends unemployment benefits to self-employed people, who have generally not been eligible for these benefits in the past.
Who's eligible for unemployment benefits?
Every state sets its own eligibility guidelines for unemployment insurance benefits. However, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, you typically qualify if you:
- Are unemployed through no fault of your own.
- Meet your state's requirements for time worked, and wages earned.
- Meet any additional state requirements.
In addition, there are some other conditions that may make you eligible. If a qualified medical professional diagnoses you with COVID-19, and the illness caused health complications that made you unable to perform essential job functions, you might be eligible. In addition, if you are the primary caregiver of a child who is at home because their school closed because of COVID-19 and caregiving for that child makes you unable to work, you may qualify for unemployment benefits.
In addition, independent contractors may also be eligible for unemployment benefits if they are unable to work or if they lose work because of COVID-19. If your state has relaxed restrictions on your employer and you are able to go back to work, or you are called back after furlough, your eligibility status may change depending on your individual circumstances. For more specifics about the rules in your state, reach out to your state's unemployment contacts, found here.
How to apply for unemployment benefits
If you lose your job and wish to receive unemployment benefits, you need to file a claim with the unemployment insurance program in the state where you worked. Various states require that you file in person, by telephone, and/or online.
It's a good idea to file your claim as soon as possible after you lose your job, but reports of state unemployment offices being overwhelmed by the need of their residents indicate that you may need to try repeatedly to file your claim.
Typically, you should file your claim in the state where you worked, but if you worked in multiple states, contact the unemployment insurance agency in the state where you live for direction on where to file. Be prepared to give information about your addresses and dates of employment. It may take a few weeks to get your first benefit check. For independent contractors, the wait may be even longer.
The CARES Act significantly expanded unemployment benefits and made them available to more people. Be aware of your state's eligibility requirements, file as soon as possible after losing your job, and follow up as needed.