Unemployment Benefits During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Guide

In March 2020, the United States’ longest economic expansion in modern history ran into the buzzsaw of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing an unprecedented spike in jobless claims.

Nearly 60 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits from March through the end of August 2020, according to CNBC, even as some companies staffed up to meet increased demand. Millions more filed during the following months as the pandemic’s worst wave yet forced many states back into lockdown mode.

If there’s any silver lining to this sobering situation, it’s that the vast majority of workers laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are eligible for state unemployment benefits.

If you’ve already been laid off as a result of the pandemic, worry your job isn’t secure, or feel that you’re being forced to return to an unsafe working environment, it’s essential you understand things like your eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits (UI benefits), how to apply, and how to avoid issues that could delay or jeopardize your claim

Who’s Eligible Now & How Much Can You Receive?

In late March 2020, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus and emergency financial assistance package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

One of the act’s core provisions was a significant expansion of federal support for state unemployment compensation programs. This expansion authorized $600 in additional benefits per week and 13 weeks of extended benefits for each eligible recipient, both fully funded by the federal government.

The $600 in additional weekly benefits expired at the end of July 2020 and lapsed until late December 2020, when an act of Congress reinstated additional weekly benefits at 50% of the initial level ($300 per week).

The CARES Act’s unemployment expansion provision also extended unemployment benefits eligibility to formerly ineligible classes of workers, including self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and gig economy participants.

The CARES Act’s unemployment expansion relies on three distinct programs created by the law:

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program
The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program
The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program

Prior executive action had already extended benefits to claimants directly or indirectly affected by COVID-19, including those whose employers cease operation temporarily due to the pandemic.

And Congress extended all three programs through the summer of 2021, with some modifications, as part of a broader coronavirus stimulus package passed in December 2020 and its follow-on, the American Rescue Plan Act, which passed in March 2021.

Eligibility for Unemployment Benefits

The first program, PUA, significantly expands the pool of workers eligible to receive state unemployment benefits.

Like regular unemployment compensation programs (regular unemployment benefits or “regular UI”), states administer benefits for workers newly covered under PUA, but guidelines for coverage are consistent across the entire country.

According to the California Employment Development Department, which oversees what’s likely to become the most extensive state PUA program in the country, worker classes eligible for coverage under PUA include:

Traditional employees, who report their income on a W-2 form, including part-time workers
Independent contractors, including gig economy workers who formerly earned income through gig economy apps, who often report their income on a 1099-MISC form
Individuals engaged in self-employment (self-employed individuals or solopreneurs)
Business owners

Ineligibility for PUA Benefits

Newly covered workers are ineligible if they qualify for unemployment benefits under regular state unemployment compensation programs or qualify for certain other state-administered benefits, such as disability benefits or paid family leave.

Claimants must be eligible to work in the U.S. throughout the claim period, which means the lapse of a noncitizen’s work authorization could jeopardize their eligibility for benefits.

Tests for PUA Benefit Eligibility

Under PUA, unemployment compensation claimants must meet at least one of about a dozen additional criteria.

Some are broadly written and likely affect many thousands of U.S. workers, such as COVID-19-related workplace closures or a severe curtailment of independent contractor hours.

The PUA program largely supersedes a prior executive action by the U.S. Department of Labor allowing but not requiring states to pay unemployment benefits to workers meeting one of three tests:

Their employer temporarily ceases operation due to COVID-19
The employee must temporarily quarantine due to COVID-19
The employee leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection in the workplace or to care for a family member with COVID-19

President Biden’s Expansion of Unemployment Eligibility

On Feb. 26, 2021, President Biden announced a significant expansion of unemployment benefits eligibility for workers whose employers require them to return to unsafe workplaces as a condition of continued employment or reemployment.

It’s expected that many more workers will face this choice as businesses reopen.

According to Insurance Journal, Biden’s executive order opens PUA eligibility to workers whose continued regular UI claims were denied by state unemployment agencies due to their refusal to accept an offer of work at places of employment that do not comply with COVID-19 safety standards.

In other words, workers can receive unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to or begin work in unsafe working environments at their employers’ request.

Biden’s executive order also expanded PUA eligibility to claimants meeting one of two additional criteria:

Layoffs or reduced hours directly resulting from the pandemic, such as due to COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace or state-mandated workplace closure
School employees not working on contract or written assurance of ongoing employment and whose hours are reduced due to COVID-19 school closures

Workers meeting these criteria are encouraged to apply for state unemployment benefits even if they’ve previously been denied.

Limits on Unemployment Benefits: Duration & Maximum Weekly Payment

Regular state unemployment benefit (regular UI) eligibility typically expires after 26 consecutive weeks of benefits, after which an unemployed worker who remains out of work no longer receives weekly payments.

The CARES Act effectively expands this eligibility window by half its original duration, to 39 weeks.

Per the Department of Labor, which is responsible for implementing the second program, the PEUC, the federal government initially provided 100% funding for up to 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits. (This was later extended by 11 weeks, for a total of up to 24 nonconsecutive weeks for eligible beneficiaries.)

Though state unemployment programs are responsible for disbursing these benefits, the federal government covers their entire cost, and they can’t pass that cost on to businesses through elevated unemployment insurance payments.

To qualify for additional weeks of unemployment benefits paid for by the federal government, eligible workers must meet four conditions:

Have exhausted state or federal unemployment compensation for a benefit year (12-month period) beginning on or after July 1, 2019
Have no other rights to weekly unemployment compensation under any other state or federal law
Have no rights to weekly unemployment compensation under Canadian law, which could come into play if the affected worker earns income in both the U.S. and Canada (for more on Canadian unemployment insurance, refer to this guide from Paycheck Guru)
Are able, available, and actively seeking to work, subject to the COVID-related flexibility tests outlined in the executive action of March 2020

The period of eligibility for extended unemployment compensation (up to 39 weeks) initially ran through Dec. 31, 2020. Stimulus legislation passed in December 2020 extended the window through early April 2021 for most filers.

Some states have enacted even longer extensions. The American Rescue Plan authorized additional extensions of unemployment benefits through August 2021, though many states chose not to pay benefits for that long.

Through July 31, 2020, the final program, the FPUC, provided an additional weekly unemployment compensation payment of $600 to any recipient eligible for at least $1 in weekly state unemployment compensation payments.

Unlike regular UI, the size of the weekly FPUC payment wasn’t a function of the recipient’s prior compensation — it was flat for all recipients. The stimulus package passed in December 2020 provided for 11 additional weeks of FPUC payments at $300 per week, regardless of prior compensation.

How to Apply for Unemployment Compensation During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Because each state administers its own unemployment compensation program, the details of the application process vary by jurisdiction.

The best resource for questions about your state’s application process is your state’s unemployment insurance program, which you can find through the Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop portal.

Where to File for Unemployment Compensation

Widespread stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements have significantly impacted most state labor departments’ operations.

Even where state workforce facilities remain open, unemployment compensation applicants are strongly encouraged to apply for benefits online to reduce COVID-19 exposure risk.

However, because unprecedented initial claim volumes have slowed or crashed digital claim processing systems across the U.S., paper applications could actually result in faster claim processing in certain jurisdictions.

Again, the best source of up-to-date guidance is your state labor department. Use the CareerOneStop portal to find your state labor department’s online application and any guidance regarding alternative application methods.

Online applications generally require:

A supported browser version (requirements for which vary by state) with pop-ups and JavaScript enabled
A supported PDF reader (the free version of Adobe Reader is usually sufficient)

Unless otherwise indicated, you should file for unemployment benefits in the state where you last worked, regardless of your state of residence.

If you earned income in two or more states, you must most likely file separate applications in each state where you’re eligible to receive benefits due to a qualifying job event.

What You Need to File for Unemployment Compensation

You’re likely to need to provide or confirm the following when you apply for unemployment compensation.

Some states may not require all these or may require additional information or documentation not listed here. Take any questions about your specific situation to your state’s labor department.

Valid, current photo identification issued by a qualifying government entity (state or federal)
A valid Social Security number or taxpayer ID (or alien ID number for noncitizens)
Pay stubs stretching back at least two years
Names, addresses, and dates of employment for all recent employers (usually at least 18 months back)
Your most recent income tax return (generally for self-employed applicants only)
Records of federal employment, if applicable
A separation notice or letter from recent employer(s), if applicable

Georgia’s application for unemployment benefits is an indication of what to expect from your own state’s. But, again, your state’s labor department is the best source of information before and during the application process.

If your state labor department has difficulty verifying your identity or work history, they’ll ask you to provide additional information by mail or online.

Otherwise, unless indicated by your state labor department, you can expect to receive benefit payments within two to three weeks of your application’s approval.

Moving forward, you’ll need to recertify your eligibility to receive benefits at least twice per month.

Final Word

Shocking as they are, ongoing and new claims for unemployment insurance don’t tell the full story of the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least 1 in 4 American workers were laid off at some point as a result of the pandemic, but countless more have had their hours reduced or pay slashed. The total number of livelihoods affected by the pandemic won’t be known until the American economy fully recovers, a process that could take years.

Expanded unemployment benefits alone aren’t adequate to contain the economic fallout. Not when millions of workers affected by the pandemic don’t show up in official unemployment tallies because they remain on company payrolls.

Fortunately, unemployment benefits aren’t the sum total of the economic safety net during this period of unprecedented economic and social disruption.

Among other economic support measures, the CARES Act provided for one-time stimulus payments to most Americans, payroll tax deferrals for small businesses, and low-interest loans for entrepreneurs, contractors, and freelancers who’ve seen their income dry up since the pandemic began.

And the December 2020 stimulus package provided additional direct payments, general business loans, and sorely needed financial support for hard-hit industries.

To figure out if you qualify for any pandemic-related support programs, review our guide to the latest coronavirus stimulus and emergency assistance measures.