*This post may contain affiliate links, please see my disclosure
Update 3/28/20: The latest CARES Bill has passed, giving more benefits for unemployment, and allowing Self-Employed, Gig-Economy and Freelance individuals impacted by COVID-19 to apply as well.
Many Americans are going to have to get familiar with something most never gave a second thought to.
How to apply for Unemployment Insurance.
Many people I know personally are seeing their hours cut, businesses closed, or even being laid off. The effect of the country-wide lockdown is having MAJOR impact on incomes, and though it’s never fun to be out of work, Unemployment is available to those who need it.
Congress has recently passed a law to provide extra funding for states amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and there are also a few new ways to qualify. They are also expediting the process to get checks into your hands QUICKER.
Here’s a summary of the Families First Act directly from the Department of Labor:
“The federal government is allowing new options for states to amend their laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits related to COVID-19. For example, federal law allows states to pay benefits where:
- An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work;
- An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over; and
- An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.
- In addition, federal law does not require an employee to quit in order to receive benefits due to the impact of COVID-19.”
Now here’s a few updates from the new CARES Bill:
- “qualified…if self-employed, is seeking part-time employment, does not have sufficient work history, or otherwise would not qualify for regular unemployment or extended benefits under State or Federal law or pandemic emergency unemployment compensation under section 2107…”
- “…payable for any week shall be equal to — (A) the amount determined under the State law (before the application of this paragraph), plus (B) an additional amount of $600 (in this section referred to as “Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation”).”
As you can see, they are opening up the qualifications, AND giving additional money to those approved for unemployment.
Let’s break down what that means for you, if you can qualify, and how you can get access to unemployment funds.
How Does Unemployment Insurance Work?
Unemployment benefits provide temporary pay to those who have lost their jobs due to layoff, furlough, or business closure, or any other reason that is not their fault. They typically are in place ONLY for those who are actively searching for another job (until recently).
Unemployment benefits are funded by YOUR paycheck (FUTA taxes), as well as businesses, paid to state and federal government. Those funds are then distributed through State Unemployment offices for those who apply for and are approved for benefits.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act has expanded the ability for taxpayers affected by business cutbacks and shutdowns to apply for unemployment insurance. The new CARES Act has opened up unemployment to Gig-Economy, Freelancers, and Self-Employed Individuals.
Every state runs its own program (hence the confusion on how it all works), but they do adhere to Federal Guidelines.
We’ll cover how to navigate your way through qualifying and applying for benefits, and talk about WHEN you get paid, and HOW MUCH.
Let’s get started!
Do I Qualify For Unemployment Benefits?
Many Americans are asking this question right now. Businesses are temporarily shutting down, cutting hours, or has laid off workers in an effort to minimize the financial impact of COVID-19.
To qualify for unemployment, you will need to check on your state eligibility requirements. Every state does it a bit different, but in general, there are 3 main requirements.
- You are out of work through no fault of your own
- You meet the minimum earnings or “job tenure” requirements
- You are able, available and looking for new work
Here are the details:
1. Why Are You Out Of Work?
Each state has its own set of rules on who qualifies, here are the general guidelines:
You can qualify for unemployment benefits if:
- You were fired for substandard performance or something other than “serious misconduct”
- You were laid off due to workforce reduction
- You quit for serious reasons, such as caring for an ill family member, or harassment
- [NEW] You are experiencing reduced hours, furlough or business closure due to COVID-19
You typically do NOT qualify for unemployment benefits if:
- You voluntarily quit without extenuating circumstances (such as family illness or harassment)
- You were fired for serious misconduct (stealing, crime, harassment, safety issues, failed drug test, etc.)
- [NEW] You are missing work due to COVID-19 related health reasons (but this is covered under the new Paid Sick Leave benefits)
These are just guidelines, make sure to check your eligibility for your specific state. Even some “disqualifications” are only temporary depending on the state.
Update: If you are self-employed, freelancer or gig-economy worker and your business is impacted by COVID-19, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. Please go to your state website and apply NOW.
2. How Long Have You Been Employed?
I’ll admit, this part is complicated. Every state does things VERY differently, and you will most likely need to go through an unemployment application if you are not sure what the state requirements are.
Most states have a minimum tenure and/or earnings requirement, meaning you have to have been in the workforce for a certain amount of time and earned a minimum amount before you can qualify for benefits.
Details for each state can be found in this Unemployment doc.
If you have been out of work for an extended period of time or have worked less than the “minimum required hours”, you may not qualify.
Most states look at a 1-year period in your work history, typically the previous 4 quarters prior to the current quarter. Example: if you are applying for unemployment in March 2020, they would consider your work history from September 2018 through September 2019. This is called the “base period” and is used for qualification and calculation of benefits.
Full-time workers are typically covered if they meet the requirements, but many states are currently NOT covering part-time workers.
Update: If you are self-employed, freelancer or gig-economy worker and your business is impacted by COVID-19, you can apply. There is no “tenure” qualification, or minimum amount of time in business.
3. Able, Available And Looking For New Work
This is a typical requirement of normal unemployment situations. To qualify, you need to be on the search for a new job, and typically need to report on this weekly.
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused the Department of Labor to give new guidance for states to adopt new policies around this.
Many workers are displaced and experiencing reduced hours, furlough or temporary business closure. They expect to resume work after the outbreak is over, so they wouldn’t be looking for another job during this time.
Many states have started waiving this requirement, but you will need to check with your state unemployment office directly.
Update: If you are self-employed, freelancer or gig-economy worker and your business is impacted by COVID-19, “looking for work” should not apply.
How Much Money Does Unemployment Pay?
Update: The new CARES Bill pays you MORE money on unemployment. In addition to your weekly state benefits (see below), the Federal Government is paying another $600 per week for the duration of your unemployment. This is a HUGE deal, and is meant to replace your total income.
As discussed above, your unemployment benefits depend on your tenure and earnings during your “base period.”
There is a “MAXIMUM BENEFIT” amount per state, and I found a great table here to lists them all.
On average, unemployment insurance pays less than half of your typical earnings. More than that, it is also subject to income tax, and typically it is recommended you elect to withhold 10%.
So, using a VERY rough calculation, here’s how it could look.
- Typical income is $4,000 per month
- Unemployment benefit is $1,900 per month
- Tax is $190 per month
Unemployment Take Home Pay = $1,710 per month
Most states pay weekly or bi-weekly.
Update: If you are self-employed, freelancer or gig-economy worker and your business is impacted by COVID-19, the calculations will be based on “most recent tax year.” If you have not filed your 2019 taxes, they will calculate based on wages, 1099 receipts, and other business income documents. Please apply to find out your rate.
When Do I Start Receiving Unemployment Benefits?
Typically, unemployment benefits have a 1-week “waiting period” before you can apply and be approved. The first check (or direct deposit) arrives a few weeks after approval.
With the new relief options available for those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, most states are waiving the 1-week waiting period, and allowing workers to apply the same week they are affected.
There will still be a waiting period for processing and sending out the money, so you may still need to wait a few weeks before you receive your first payment. As usual, direct deposit payment (recommended) will arrive faster than a physical check.
How Long Will I Receive Unemployment?
Unemployment typically lasts up to 26 weeks. But many states pay far less than that, with some as little at 14 weeks, and others that pay based on your employment history.
There is a provision for extended benefits beyond the 26 weeks (or less), and may add additional unemployment benefits (up to 13 weeks). This is typically only available during times of high unemployment.
Update: The new CARES Act will pay an additional $600 per week on top of your state unemployment pay, for up to 39 weeks!
How Do I Apply For Unemployment?
The simplest way to apply is to go to your state unemployment website. Select the state that you were working in and apply online.
To apply for unemployment, a list of offices for all 50 states can be found HERE
If there is no available online portal to apply, you can simply call the office phone number and apply over the phone (expect a significant wait time right now).
Most applications require you to have some basic information on hand, such as your personal information, employment history, social security number, and citizenship status.
Here’s a quick example from the Washington State website or what you may need:
- Your Social Security number.
- Your name, birthdate and contact information (for example, mailing address, phone number and email address).
- Your highest level of education.
- The names and mailing addresses of all your employers during the past 18 months, including part-time and temporary jobs.
- The dates you worked for all employers in the past 18 months. Use your best estimate if you don’t remember the exact dates.
- If you normally get your work through a union, the name and local number of your union.
- If you were in the military during the last 18 months, your DD-214, any member copy, 2 through 8.
- If you were a federal employee in the past 18 months, your Standard Form 8 (SF8), “Notice To Federal Employees About Unemployment Insurance.”
- Your citizenship status. If you’re not an U.S. citizen, your work authorization information.
- If you apply for benefits online and want to sign up for direct deposit, your account and routing numbers for your bank or credit union.
During the application process, you will be asked for your employment history, your pay rate, and other personal questions. Some states will show you the estimated benefits during the application process, some will show after it is submitted.
After your application is submitted, you will need to be on the lookout for your approval/denial email or notification within the portal. For any questions or issues, simply call the state office directly for help submitting your application.
Note: When applying, you may be asked if you are currently available and looking for work. Since most systems have not been updated for the COVID-19 exceptions, I recommend selecting “yes” in this section, as most states will automatically reject your application if you say “no.”
I’ve Applied, What’s Next?
Once you have submitted your application, I recommend logging into your portal daily to check on the status. And make sure to keep an eye out for emails from your state unemployment office in case they need more information to processes your approval.
If needed, hop on the phone with them to help expedite the approval process, and get any questions you need answered.
Important: Once you are “approved”, you will need to submit your first claim to get the process started.
How Often Do I Have To Reapply For Unemployment?
Most states require you to “recertify” for unemployment every week. Make sure to check with your state office guidelines to understand the process.
This is still true for those affected by COVID-19 related closures and furlough.
Get started by finding for your state unemployment application.