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How states are expanding unemployment eligibility to include more people impacted by coronavirus

A sign hangs on the door of a shuttered restaurant in the Chicago Loop on March 19, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

President Donald Trump signed a $100 billion coronavirus relief package into law Wednesday, which will provide free COVID-19 testing and expand paid leave and unemployment insurance to Americans impacted by the pandemic.

More funding to unemployment insurance can help the nearly one in five U.S. households that have already experienced a layoff or reduction in work hours due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll and reported by NPR.

Following an announcement from the U.S. Department of Labor last week, states, which administer unemployment programs, have been granted greater flexibility in determining who qualifies for unemployment insurance benefits.

In many states, workers can now file a claim for partial wage replacement if their employer reduces their hours or shuts down due to the pandemic. This can provide some financial relief to service industry workers impacted by nationwide closures of restaurants, bars and retail stores.

How some states are relaxing eligibility requirements

In the past, anyone looking to qualify for unemployment insurance had to demonstrate they lost their job through no fault of their own (like being laid off) or they quit for a qualifying reason (which vary by state). They often had to prove they were actively searching for new work and in some states, there was a waiting period before individuals would start receiving benefits. 

Given the difficulty of searching for a job during the pandemic, several states, including California and Ohio, have waived the requirement to be actively searching for a new job at this time.

Others, including New York, have waived the requirement that workers go through a seven-day waiting period between the time they file an unemployment claim and when they start receiving benefits.

Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order Monday to extend benefits eligibility to workers who have an unexpected family care responsibility, including parents who are unable to work because they are caring for children amid school closures.

Other federal guidelines say states may allow workers to apply for unemployment insurance if they are quarantined due to the coronavirus, caring for an infected family member or if they have to quit their job because of their risk of exposure to the disease.

There's still uncertainty of who is eligible

Even with these expanded benefits, many people are unsure if they qualify, especially if they left jobs because they worried about their exposure to COVID-19.

Jaycee Gordon of Morganfield, Kentucky, quit her job as a Walmart store associate in early March, in part due to concern that her work interacting with customers would put her at risk of contracting the coronavirus while she is pregnant. 

While the impact of coronavirus on pregnancy is still unknown, the CDC warns that people who contract the COVID-19 while pregnant may be more vulnerable to developing severe respiratory problems, such as pneumonia. Health professionals have advised pregnant women to avoid situations that would put them at risk of exposure to the virus (like staying away from crowds and sick people).

"I wasn't receiving any accommodations from my store management to protect me and my family, so I chose to leave even though I can't afford to be out of work," Gordon tells CNBC Make It

Gordon is a member of United for Respect, an advocacy group of retail workers.

Before quitting, the 18-year-old used two days of paid leave when she felt sick — PTO she accrued during her six months working at Walmart — as well as four days of unpaid leave. At the time, Gordon was told that a request for a fifth day of unpaid leave could result in her termination, she says.

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Gordon quit before Walmart's March 10 announcement of its amended emergency leave policy, which now allows any worker who is unable or uncomfortable going into work to stay home. Workers can use their accrued PTO; once that is exhausted, the remainder of their leave will be unpaid. Typically, hourly associates with less than a year with the company, like Gordon, accrue one hour of PTO for roughly 40 hours of work, according to Gordon and Walmart's most recent policy information available to the public.

Gordon says she plans to support her family by applying for disability benefits and food assistance, but she's not sure if she's eligible for unemployment insurance. Her husband is also a Walmart employee and remains with the company.

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

What to do if you don't know if you qualify for unemployment

With states updating their unemployment insurance eligibility requirements every day, it's crucial workers stay up to date with the latest from their own state's Department of Labor website, says Demetra Nightingale, a fellow at nonprofit research organization The Urban Institute.

She says workers should consider checking their eligibility even if they think they don't qualify.

The recent changes instituted by local and federal governments are intended to cover more workers impacted by the pandemic, Nightingale tells CNBC Make It. Depending on the state, this could mean people previously not eligible for unemployment — part-time workers, contract workers, day laborers and others not on a traditional payroll system — may soon qualify for assistance.

Even if a worker attempts to file a claim and isn't eligible for insurance benefits now, they may qualify in the future if their state expands eligibility at a later time, Nightingale adds.

As more workers lose their jobs and new requirements are announced, state resources are struggling to meet growing demand for assistance. Many state labor department offices have been overwhelmed with activity in recent days, resulting in site crashes and long waiting times to contact someone by phone.

Despite these challenges, Nightingale says the best way to file for unemployment insurance benefits is to do so online. She recommends those having trouble accessing online systems use community resources, including service organizations and local advocacy hotlines, for additional assistance.

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

Don't miss: If you lose your job due to the coronavirus pandemic, here's how to navigate filing for unemployment

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