Personal Finance

Do you have questions about unemployment benefits? Here's what you need to know

Key Points
  • The coronavirus pandemic has pushed a record number of Americans to file for unemployment insurance in recent weeks. 
  • Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about unemployment benefits. 
Unemployment applications are seen as City of Hialeah employees hand them out to people in front of the John F. Kennedy Library on April 08, 2020 in Hialeah, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Americans are applying for unemployment in record numbers as the coronavirus pandemic has effectively shuttered much of the U.S. economy.

Roughly 16 million people applied for benefits in the last three weeks — about 10% of the workforce and nearly double the 8.7 million claims filed during the entire Great Recession.

Below, we answer some questions readers may have about unemployment benefits.

What is unemployment insurance?

Unemployment insurance is a form of "social insurance" that provides temporary income support to Americans who lose their jobs. Cash benefits are generally paid weekly to recipients.

Are benefits the same for everybody?

No. Payment amounts depend on a worker's prior wages, typically over the last four quarters. They also vary significantly between states, which administer unemployment benefits and use different formulas to calculate aid.  

How do I file for unemployment?

Contact your state's unemployment office as soon as possible after becoming unemployed.

You should generally file your claim with the state where you worked. You can find details of each state program and how to file in your state using the U.S. Labor Department's Unemployment Benefits Finder.

Claims can be filed by phone, online or in person, though many brick-and-mortar offices are closed.

Some states have amended their filing procedures by urging people to apply during off hours and those with certain last names to apply on specific days of the week, for example.

What's the deal with expanded benefits?

The $2 trillion economic relief package — the CARES Act, which President Trump signed March 27 — significantly expanded unemployment benefits.

It did so in three primary ways: by offering bigger weekly checks, increasing the duration of those payments, and extending benefits to previously ineligible groups, like freelancers and gig workers.

Tell me more about expanded payments

The average jobless American received about $378 a week in unemployment benefits before the economic downturn, according to U.S. Labor Department data from year-end 2019.

Most states pay those benefits for up to 26 weeks — or 6½ months.

The relief law gives an extra $600 a week to workers through July 31. That means the average person could now expect roughly $978 a week — a 159% increase — for the next four months.

Further, the new law provides an additional 13 weeks of benefits (up to 39 total) through Dec. 31 to help those who remain unemployed after exhausting the standard length of state benefits.

What's the minimum amount I can get?

Again, this varies by state. But the new law raises the minimum payment significantly.

The law sets a minimum of half the state's average weekly payment. When added to the $600-a-week supplement, the nationwide average would be about $789 a week.

In Massachusetts, the most generous state, an unemployed person can expect to collect at least $878 a week. Mississippi would offer the lowest benefit among other states — $707 a week, which is still an increase of more than 2,200% from its prior minimum of $30.

Who's eligible for benefits?

The CARES Act extends benefits to groups of workers who were generally ineligible to collect under prior law, if they can't work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

They include self-employed individuals, independent contractors, "gig economy" workers like Uber and Lyft drivers, and those with limited work history.

Broadly, you may now be eligible if any of the following are true as a result of the coronavirus, according to the Labor Department:

• Your employer permanently or temporarily laid you off;

• Your employer reduced your work hours;

• You are self-employed and have lost income;

• You're quarantined and can't work;

• You're unable to work due to a risk of exposure to coronavirus;

• You can't work because you're caring for a family member due to coronavirus.

Can all unemployed workers collect?

Not necessarily. While the federal government significantly expanded eligibility, states have broad latitude to interpret new rules and are the final arbiters.

Those without pay records (like those working under the table for cash), fired for cause or receiving paid leave will generally be out of luck.

Can I quit and still collect?

Generally, no. But the new law provided flexibility to states in this regard — for example, in cases where a person "leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member," according to the Labor Department.

States may prosecute and require repayment in cases of fraud.

Have states relaxed other rules?

Yes. Many states have suspended rules such as a one-week waiting period after becoming unemployed to apply for benefits, a requirement that recipients be actively searching for work, and made payments retroactive to the date of unemployment.

States struggle to keep up with unemployment claims
States struggle to keep up with unemployment claims

How long will it take to receive benefits?

It generally takes two to three weeks after you file your claim to receive your first benefit check, according to the Labor Department. This may differ by state and may be delayed due to a surge in volume being reported by unemployment offices around the country.

Can some people collect more than their prior wages?

Yes, this is possible as a result of the $600-a-week supplement to state benefits.

Prior to this supplement, unemployment insurance replaced about a third of the average worker's prior wages, according to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

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The goal of the supplement was to replace 100% of the average worker's pay. But some making low to moderate incomes could get more.

How do I find out if I am eligible for benefits? What should I do?

Officials are generally telling people to apply for benefits if they think they're eligible.

States are currently updating their programs to respond to the recent changes in federal law. If you don't see updated information yet on the state website, you should still apply, the Labor Department urges. If you've already applied, you should get your full benefits or be notified if your state needs more information, the Department said.

I can't get through online or by phone. What should I do?

Unfortunately, this is the case for people in many states, which are dealing with record and unprecedented volume.

Frustrating though it may be, officials are urging applicants to be patient and keep trying.

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