More than 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March, when the pandemic shuttered nonessential businesses around the country. Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for those who lost work due to COVID-19, and because of the rapid closings and layoffs, there’s been a lot of confusion and questions around unemployment insurance — ranging from regular unemployment benefits to the temporary federal pandemic relief programs.
We’ve taken the most frequently asked questions and answered them below.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — or the CARES Act — set Friday, July 31, as the final day for paying the additional $600 in weekly pandemic relief benefits. However, most states issue unemployment benefits on weeks that end on Saturdays or Sundays. If that’s the case for your state, the last week to receive the extra benefit will be the week ending Saturday July 25 (the majority of states), or Sunday, July 26.
It’s still up in the air as to whether the benefit will be extended past the July cutoff. The House enacted the Heroes Act that proposed an extension of the full amount. However, it is still unclear whether the US Senate will follow the lead of the House. “The thing is, there are far fewer jobs to be had,” explained Monica Halas, a consulting attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “People are facing a long road of unemployment ahead of them, so they need to know whether they’ll be able to support themselves and their families, especially if the pandemic worsens.”
Simply put: States were not prepared for the overwhelming number of claims. Between budget cuts by the federal government and old, inefficient systems, it’s been difficult to process claims. “Right before the pandemic, unemployment was low — funding was low, staff was low,” said Halas. “Then the pandemic hit, followed by a tsunami of claims, and every day the federal government issued new unemployment guidelines. It was difficult for states to ramp up — and some just couldn’t do it fast enough.”
Another huge setback for benefit payouts is the now large-scale fraud scam involving imposters filing claims by using personal information of people who never filed for claims to begin with. The national crackdown on the scam started in May and in the midst of reviewing past applications, the aggressive interventions meant to halt the fraudsters not only affected unemployment benefits for those already getting aid, but also for people whose claims still haven’t been processed yet. You should have a plan in place as to when you should stop waiting for unemployment.
The first step is to call your state’s unemployment hotline or check your state’s unemployment website for guidance. You may be told to reapply to receive the benefits you’re entitled to. Very often, contacting your state representative or state senator is helpful in moving your case along. Also, contact your local legal aid office for assistance if you have been denied benefits.
“If the unemployment insurance application was processed timely, a person should be able to get the benefits that are owed to them,” explained Halas. “It’s crucial to apply for benefits as soon as you lose your job — and if you can’t, then you should have a reason for not applying sooner. An application for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is generally retroactive to the date that you were first affected by COVID-19.”
If you were working a part-time job or had one lined up for the summer, you may be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Insurance (PUA). Double-check your state’s guidelines (currently the only state not allowing this assistance is Minnesota). “PUA allows eligibility for part-time workers, including full-time high school and college students with part-time jobs, as long as the student is unemployed or hours reduced due to COVID-19,” said Halas. You can typically apply online for unemployment insurance benefits, or through your state’s unemployment office. Check the website of your state’s labor or employment department for details. (Each state has its own process and some may require separate applications for regular benefits and pandemic relief benefits.)
“When you’ve exhausted every other route to find out where your benefits are, the best way to get help is to contact your local state elected officials,” said Halas. “Elected officials often have a direct line into your state’s unemployment insurance department — and they can really help people get benefits much quicker.”