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Extra unemployment benefits may take weeks to arrive. Fewer checks may be coming

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Key Points
  • President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion Covid relief bill into law on Sunday.
  • Workers are poised to get a $300 boost to weekly unemployment benefits and almost three months of extra jobless aid.
  • But it may take weeks for states to pay that assistance. Workers may also get fewer total weeks of extra benefits — 10 instead of 11.
A drive-in "Let's Feed LA County" food distribution event hosted by the Los Angeles Food Bank on Dec. 4, 2020 in Hacienda Heights, California.
FREDERIC J. BROWN | AFP | Getty Images

President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion Covid relief package into law Sunday. But the extra unemployment benefits it contains may take weeks to arrive. Workers may also get less money than they'd thought.

The legislation provides 11 weeks of additional benefits to the self-employed and workers who exhausted their standard allotment of state benefits. It also offers a $300 weekly increase in benefits for the same length of time, through March 14.

However, states must wait to begin issuing the funds. The president's signature starts a chain reaction that will likely end with workers getting their first checks well into January, according to unemployment experts.

Plus, Trump's delay in signing the relief bill, which Congress passed a week ago, allowed two unemployment programs supporting 14 million Americans to expire over the weekend.

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Bringing those back on line could further slow the process, creating a wider gap in benefits for those who lost them.

"Unfortunately, by delaying the signing of the bill and letting these programs lapse, President Trump likely increased the delay these workers will experience in getting their [unemployment] benefit payments," said Elizabeth Pancotti, a policy advisor at Employ America, a progressive think tank.

Delays in jobless benefits

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The U.S. Department of Labor must now rush to issue guidance to states on how to implement the law's unemployment provisions. States must then code in the new rules and pay workers. The length of that administrative process will vary by state.

While some states will likely start disbursing aid in the next few weeks, others may take as many as five to seven weeks, Pancotti said. That would mirror workers' experience over the summer with a prior $300 weekly boost to benefits via a Lost Wages Assistance program, she said.

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, believes the process will take at least two to three weeks.

Workers would receive back pay if there are delays.

Delays aren't a given in all states, however. Rhode Island workers enrolled in expiring federal programs will be paid next week, state labor officials said Monday afternoon.

"There will NOT be a gap in payments, and you do NOT need to reapply," according to a tweet from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. The $300 weekly boost will be added to benefits starting next week, the agency said.

Similarly, New Jersey labor officials said there wouldn't be a gap in benefits, citing the U.S. Labor Department in a tweet on Monday.

The Department's Office of Unemployment Insurance will deliver five pieces of initial guidance, with more to follow if needed, to assist states with the implementation of these programs, with the first documents to be published in the near future," according to a U.S. Labor Department spokesperson.

"Timelines for state implementation may vary, and new provisions and large-scale changes to state-run benefit programs also require adequate time for testing prior to rollout."

Fewer weeks of back pay

Exactly how many weeks of back pay some workers will get has been called into question by Trump's lag in signing the relief package.

As things stand, it appears unemployed workers will get 10 weeks of extra benefits — one fewer than the law intended.

"The President's pointless delay in approving this relief legislation cost millions of Americans a week's worth of pandemic-related unemployment assistance that they desperately need," Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Sunday night.

The White House didn't immediately return a request for comment.

It may not yet be a done deal, however, according to Evermore.

"It's really unclear," she said.

States must sign contracts with the federal government relative to the relief law's extra jobless aid, which is federally funded. The same process occurred in the spring when the CARES Act was passed.

This was to be the first available week of extra benefits offered by the relief law.

But due to administrative rules, workers likely won't be able to collect benefits for the current week even if states were to sign necessary contracts this week, Evermore said.

There may be a workaround available, whereby states merely amend their CARES Act contracts instead of signing new ones altogether. That would allow for 11 weeks of benefits instead of 10, Evermore said.

However, it's a "stretch" and will depend on how the Labor Department interprets the law, she said.

The Labor Department anticipates workers will get the full 11 weeks of benefits instead of 10, according to a spokesperson.