Applying for unemployment because of coronavirus? Here’s how in all 50 states

A Guide to Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits

Applying for unemployment because of coronavirus? Here’s how in all 50 states

The new relief package signed by President Biden on Thursday bolsters coronavirus unemployment programs for millions of out-of-work Americans.

It also extends the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which supplements jobless benefits with an additional $300 per week until Sept. 6, 2021. The CARES Act included weekly payments of $600 on top of unemployment compensation, but those payments expired in July 2020. The amount was lowered to $300 when a new relief package passed in December.

Here's what you need to know about coronavirus unemployment benefits.

Who qualifies

You can receive unemployment benefits if you are unable to work or are working reduced hours as a result of the coronavirus. That includes people who are directly impacted by the virus — those who have symptoms, are quarantined or are caring for someone who has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

You’re also covered under the following circumstances:

  • Your workplace closed due to the public health emergency.
  • You had to quit your job because of the coronavirus.
  • You can’t work because you are a caregiver to someone whose school or other facility closed and you need to care for them.
  • You were supposed to start a job but it fell through or you can’t get there because of the coronavirus.

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Benefits are also extended to people who are self-employed (including gig and contract workers), work part time or who normally wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they lack sufficient work history.

You don't qualify for unemployment benefits if you are able to work from home with pay or are getting paid leave while work.

Coronavirus unemployment programs

Unemployment benefits are traditionally provided by states, but the coronavirus relief act in March 2020 established three temporary federal unemployment programs. The December bill created an additional program for those with W-2 and self-employed income.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

This covers people who aren't eligible for regular unemployment insurance, including gig workers, independent contractors and those who are self-employed. Part-time employees and those who don’t have sufficient work history may also qualify for PUA benefits.

The new relief extends PUA benefits from 50 weeks to up to 79 weeks. The exact amount you will receive is decided by your state, which has some discretion in determining eligibility and calculating benefit payouts. In most states, you need to apply for, and be denied, regular unemployment benefits before you can be considered for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation

This program provides benefits for people who max out their regular unemployment compensation. The new relief bill extends this program from up to 24 weeks to up to 53 weeks, lasting through Sept. 6.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation

The funding bill passed in December revived this program, providing $300 per week on top of state and federal unemployment benefits. You have to apply for unemployment through your state to get the $300 per week, which kicks in after March 14 and is payable until Sept. 6.

Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation

The December relief package established a new program for self-employed workers who also earned income via traditional W-2 employment.

This program — also extended through Sept. 6 — provides an additional $100 per week, on top of regular unemployment benefits and the $300 per week in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. To qualify, you must be able to show that you earned at least $5,000 in self-employed income in the prior tax year. States can choose not to provide this benefit.

How much money to expect

Weekly unemployment benefits for most people will consist of two parts:

  1. The benefit amount allowed in your state. The formula used to calculate this amount varies by state, as does the maximum weekly benefit.

  2. An additional $300 per week of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, available until Sept. 6, 2021.

It’s important to note: The $300-per-week pandemic compensation doesn't have an impact on your eligibility for income-based health insurance Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

How to apply for unemployment insurance

Contact your state’s unemployment office to apply for benefits. You can typically file your claim online or over the phone. Information needed for your claim will vary by state, but in most cases, you’ll need the following:

Your information

  • Your name, Social Security number and driver’s license number (if you have one). If you are a noncitizen, you will need your alien registration number and expiration date.
  • Your mailing address and phone number.
  • Your bank information (address, routing number and account number) for direct deposit. This is typically optional.

You will also need employment information for your most recent employer, as well as any employer you’ve worked for over the past 18 to 24 months.

Your employment history

  • The name of your employer (as it appears on your pay stub or W-2).
  • The complete address and phone number of the employer.
  • Your wage information, including how you were paid (hourly, weekly, monthly).
  • The reason you are no longer working.

If you are self-employed or an independent contractor, you may be able to submit recent tax returns or 1099 forms to verify your income.

Continuing on unemployment insurance

Applying for unemployment insurance is only the first step. You'll need to show you're looking for work, and you'll need to provide proof of prior employment, including self-employment.

Weekly certification: Each week after you file your claim, you need to certify that you are looking for work. You'll also report any hours worked or income earned for the week. This is done through your state's unemployment office.

Working part time doesn’t automatically disqualify you for unemployment benefits, but it will reduce the amount you receive each week. The exact amount depends on how much you earned and the state you live in. If you qualify for at least $1 of unemployment benefits in a given week, you will still receive the full $300 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

Proof of prior employment: As of Jan. 31, 2021, you need to provide proof of prior employment, including self-employment, in order to receive federal unemployment benefits. New applicants will have 21 days to provide proof. Those who started receiving benefits before then need to provide prior employment within 90 days of Jan. 31.

If you’re facing financial anxiety, NerdWallet can find ways to save.


With a second wave of coronavirus in the fall, here’s one potential problem for workers who get laid off again

Applying for unemployment because of coronavirus? Here’s how in all 50 states

Some public-health experts say there could be a second wave of coronavirus infections on the horizon, possibly even worse than the first. So what will come of workers who remain reliant on unemployment-insurance benefits at that time? And what about those who find a job, only to lose it during the next economic shutdown?

Almost 28 million Americans have applied for unemployment-insurance benefits over the past month and a half, by one recent estimate, the result of pandemic-induced shutdowns of entire industries. The $2.

2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Trump in late March, temporarily boosted workers’ weekly unemployment checks by $600, among other provisions.

“Because of that expansion, workers at the lower end of the income distribution are getting benefits that more than replace their lost salary,” said Karen Dynan, a Harvard University professor who served as assistant secretary for economic policy and chief economist at the Treasury Department from 2014 to 2017. “That has been a really important policy change over the last month or so.”

But those additional benefits expire at the end of July. “My worry is that if we open up too soon, and it’s sort of a false start and we have to pull back and there’s another wave of layoffs — basically this second wave — those workers will not be covered for very long under these expanded benefits,” Dynan said. “It’s possible that Congress will extend that.”

A potential problem for workers who get laid off again

In most states, workers’ labor-market experience over the past year serves as the basis for whether they qualify for unemployment benefits and how much they receive, Stephanie Aaronson, the vice president and director of the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

That eligibility requirement could pose trouble for workers who have unstable or spotty employment over the next several months due to the pandemic, and then try to collect unemployment benefits after being in and the labor force.

The CARES Act’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program does temporarily allow workers with insufficient work histories to collect benefits, but expires Dec. 31.

“It can be potentially a problem where if we have these cycles where people go back to work but then they’re laid off, fewer and fewer people will be qualifying for unemployment insurance — and if they do qualify, they won’t qualify for a very high replacement rate,” Aaronson said.

“If this were to go on for 18 months,” she added, “it might be that as people cycle on and off of unemployment insurance, they’re really not eligible for substantial benefits because they don’t have a good employment history.”

Michele Evermore, an unemployment-insurance analyst at the nonprofit National Employment Law Project, said she strongly suspected that Congress would pass an exception as it did during the last recession, “so that instead of having to figure out a new benefit year, people can draw the benefits that they did in the prior year.”

If you file for unemployment and are successful — many have experienced delays in recent weeks due to the unprecedented deluge of filers — you establish a benefit year, said Wayne Vroman, a labor economist at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Most states allow you to collect up to 26 weeks of benefits, but a few states have a shorter maximum duration, and Florida and North Carolina allow for just 12 weeks. The average weekly unemployment benefit in February was $387 nationally, but that figure ranged widely depending on the state.

States also have extended-benefits programs, funded 50-50 by the state and federal government, which kick in during periods of heightened unemployment to activate up to 13 (or, in some states, 20) additional weeks of benefits.

Congress can also manually extend benefits: During the Great Recession, Congress allowed unemployed people to collect up to 99 weeks of benefits. The CARES Act, meanwhile, extended benefits by 13 weeks to up to 39 weeks in total.

“In recessions, [unemployment] duration goes up so much. A lot of people have very long spells and they exhaust their benefits, so the extended-benefits program was created to address that,” Vroman said. Even with that, he added, “emergency federal programs have been created to keep people in benefit status for a longer period.”

An alternative to ‘political wrangling’

Some experts believe that lawmakers should choose a labor-market indicator at which additional unemployment benefits would automatically kick in, rather than having them expire after some set amount of time.

“It would be better if rather than having to go through the political wrangling every time of having to extend the benefits, Congress set some benchmarks where the benefits would automatically be extended,” Aaronson said.

Benefits could be benchmarked to a state’s unemployment rate, to specific shutdown or stay-at-home orders, or to states’ economies being relatively open or closed, Aaronson said by way of example.

“Setting in place some benchmarks where benefits would automatically kick in is really a better way to go about this, because then people get the resources they need and are less subject to political vicissitudes,” she added.

Evermore agreed that if better extended-benefit triggers weren’t enacted in the next COVID-19 relief package, Congress may have to return and extend benefits several times, as it did during the last recession.

“Hopefully we can figure out something that doesn’t require Congress to show up every time benefits start to run out,” she said. Some have proposed triggering an additional 13 weeks of benefits when state unemployment rates hit 5.5%, 6.5%, 7.5%, 8.5% and 9.5%, she said.

How continued generous benefits could ‘align everyone’s incentives’

Forecasters have grown far more pessimistic since March about how long this period of economic weakness will persist, Dynan said.

“That’s in large part because people were overly optimistic about the government’s ability to build the capacity to do things testing and tracking, and other public-health steps that would make people feel safe leaving their homes again,” she said. “They just thought by now we would’ve gotten to the point where we had the right public-health measures in place, and we really don’t.”

The CARES Act’s $600 unemployment insurance benefit was a sensible move, Aaronson added, because “you actually really want people to stay home now — and by making it a generous benefit, it helps people to survive and it encourages them to stay home.”

“If we were in a similar situation in the winter, I think we would also want to encourage people to stay home,” she said. “The federal government similarly providing a generous benefit that would help align everyone’s incentives.”


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