A Guide to Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits

Kelsey SheehyMarch 30, 2020
How Expanded Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits Work

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A historic $2 trillion spending package significantly bolsters relief to millions of Americans left jobless by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act expands unemployment benefits to include self-employed workers, including contractors and gig workers. It also supplements state benefits with an additional $600 per week, which more than doubles the weekly maximum unemployment benefit in most states.

Beyond expanding unemployment, the act also provides billions of dollars in emergency funding for hospitals and businesses affected by the coronavirus and includes direct relief payments to most Americans.

If you're out of work or have lost hours due to the coronavirus, here's what you need to know.

Who qualifies

Under the CARES Act, you can receive unemployment benefits if you are unable to work or are working reduced hours as a result of the coronavirus. That includes people who are directly impacted by the virus — those who have symptoms, are quarantined or are caring for someone who has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

You’re also covered under the following circumstances:

  • Your workplace closed due to the public health emergency.

  • You had to quit your job because of the coronavirus.

  • You can’t work because you are a caregiver to someone whose school or other facility closed and you need to care for them.

  • You were supposed to start a job but it fell through or you can’t get there because of the coronavirus.

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The CARES Act also extends benefits to people who are self-employed (including gig and contract workers), work part-time or who normally wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they lack sufficient work history.

You do not qualify for unemployment benefits if you are able to work from home with pay or are getting paid leave while out of work.

Coronavirus unemployment programs

The coronavirus relief act established three temporary unemployment programs:

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

This covers people not eligible for regular unemployment insurance, including gig workers, independent contractors and those who are self-employed. Part-time employees and those who don’t have sufficient work history may also qualify for PUA benefits.

You can receive up to 39 weeks of weekly PUA benefits. The exact amount you receive is decided by your state, which has some discretion in determining eligibility and calculating benefit payouts. In most states you need to apply for, and be denied, regular unemployment benefits before you can be considered for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation

This provides up to 13 weeks of benefits for people who maxed out their regular unemployment compensation on or after July 1, 2019.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation

This program gives an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. You have to apply for unemployment through your state to get the $600 per week, which is payable until July 31 at the latest.

How much money to expect

Weekly unemployment benefits will consist of two parts:

  1. The benefit amount allowed in your state. The formula used to calculate this amount varies by state, as does the maximum weekly benefit.

  2. An additional $600 per week of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, available until July 31, 2020.

It’s important to note: The $600-per-week pandemic compensation does not impact your eligibility for income-based health insurance like Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

How to apply for unemployment insurance

Contact your state’s unemployment office to apply for benefits. You can typically file your claim online or over the phone, but keep in mind: Not everyone who is newly eligible will be able to complete a claim right away.

Some state unemployment agencies are still implementing the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and are not equipped to pay out those claims.

Continue to check your state’s website and sign up for coronavirus email updates, if offered. Your state unemployment office’s Facebook and Twitter accounts can also be great resources for updates and guidance as it is available.

Information needed for your claim will vary by state, but in most cases, you’ll need the following:

Your information

  • Your name, Social Security number and driver’s license number (if you have one). If you are a noncitizen, you will need your alien registration number and expiration date.

  • Your mailing address and phone number.

  • Your bank information (address, routing number and account number) for direct deposit. This is typically optional.

You will also need employment information for your most recent employer, as well as any employer you’ve worked for over the past 18 to 24 months.

Your employment history

  • The name of your employer (as it appears on your pay stub or W-2).

  • The complete address and phone number of the employer.

  • Your supervisor’s name.

  • Your start and end date.

  • Your wage information, including how you were paid (hourly, weekly, monthly).

  • The reason you are no longer working.

If you are self-employed or an independent contractor, you may be able to submit recent tax returns or 1099 forms to verify your income.

Be prepared for delays when filing your claim. The recent influx of applications is jamming phone lines and causing websites to crash. Plan on it taking a few tries to complete your application.

Monitor your money during trying times

If you’re facing financial anxiety, NerdWallet can find ways to save.

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