Six weeks after applying, MaKenna Bailey got the bad news: Her claim for unemployment was denied.
A sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, she typically works around 29 hours a week, earning between $1,000 and $1,200 a month.
But the state didn’t count one of her three part-time jobs—a position in a lab on campus. Without that job counting, the state said she didn't make enough with her other two jobs to clear Pennsylvania's threshold for unemployment eligibility. And while the letter, dated April 3, told Bailey she had 20 days to appeal, she didn’t receive it in the mail until last week, with a postmark for April 25. She's one of millions of college students who are navigating the complexities of unemployment as they finish courses online this semester.
It’d be easy to dismiss college students as workers only earning extra spending money. But that’s an outdated view of who fills lecture halls today. Many students pay their college bills with earnings from a part-time job. Others may have moved back home when campuses shuttered in March, but they still owe rent in off-campus apartments or have already signed leases for next year.
In fact, of the nearly 11 million undergraduates who work while enrolled full-time, 27% work more than 20 hours a week, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And with the restaurant and service industries taking such a severe hit in the pandemic, young people are likely disproportionately affected by the recent shut down, as they’re more like to work in those industries, says Jesse Barba, senior director of external affairs at Young Invincibles, a non-profit group that advocates for young adults.
To magnify the economic pain, as many as 13 million college students were left out of the stimulus checks, Barba says. They neither received $1,200 for themselves because their parents claimed them as dependents, nor did their parents receive $500 for a dependent because they're over 17 years old.
College students should have more luck with expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act, but there are still challenges.
Normally, it’s very hard for students to qualify for unemployment because they don’t meet one or more of three common eligibility criteria. They either don't earn enough money, haven't worked long enough, or don't have the ability to accept full-time work. All are typical requirements, though states' minimums may vary.
Here’s what we do know about unemployment benefits, college students, and part-time workers.
Federal Work Study Jobs Are Not Eligible
There are more than 600,000 students around the country who are part of the federal work study program, in which the federal government subsidizes some of their pay as part of a financial aid package.
Those jobs are not considered “insured wages,” according to officials with the Iowa Workforce Development, which runs the state’s unemployment office. Even if a student pays income taxes, the employer—the college—doesn’t pay unemployment insurance taxes.
The Education Department told colleges in March that they could continue using work-study funds to pay students for regularly scheduled work even after campuses closed. But that decision was ultimately up to the institutions.
On-Campus Jobs Usually Aren’t Eligible Work
Colleges employ plenty of hourly workers outside of work-study jobs. But those, too, are not covered by normal unemployment insurance for the same reason, says Stephen Wandner, a labor economist and research fellow at the National Academy of Social Insurance. Colleges don’t pay the Federal Unemployment Tax, known as FUTA, that funds states' insurance systems. (That's the same reason self-employed and gig workers aren't normally covered.)
But at least one university—the University of Washington in Seattle—says that student employees may qualify, based on the most recent guidance the university received. The university did not respond to emails asking for the source of the guidance. Neither did officials with the state of Washington’s Employment Security Department. If student employees at that college were qualified, it's likely that'd be the case for student employees at colleges throughout the state of Washington.
Many colleges have tried to continue paying student employees through the remainder of the semester. Ohio University turned most of its on-campus jobs into remote tasks. About two-thirds of students chose to continue working in those remote jobs, university officials said. At the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, work study payments continue throughout the semester, and other student employees were paid through early April, including a final payment that was based on average earnings.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Should Make It Easier for More Students to Qualify
It’s possible that some students will have worked long enough and earned enough to pass through their state’s normal unemployment insurance system.
But for all the others, there’s the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). This is the CARES Act provision that covers people not typically eligible for unemployment but also lost work because of the pandemic, and it explicitly states that workers looking for part-time jobs and workers without sufficient work history can be covered under this program.
Claimants that file through PUA do not have to meet qualifying weeks and wages in the same way as they would for regular unemployment insurance program, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed. They do need to meet one of the coronavirus-related circumstances outlined here.
The Century Foundation, meanwhile, is pushing the federal government to expand its list of coronavirus-related circumstances to cover those students who were forced to move away from campus because their dormitory closed, but whose place of employment remained open. If those workers are classified as having voluntarily quit, then they would not be eligible for unemployment.
Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, said while rules around the precise eligibility cutoffs for PUA may be confusing for workers, as long as you have some sort of attachment to the workforce and you lost that job because of the coronavirus, you have a good argument for being covered, she says.
Evermore’s advice for workers? If there’s any gray area in which you might qualify, just apply.
“The worst thing that can happen is that the agency says no,” she says.
One key thing to keep in mind: if you applied right when you were laid off at the end of March, that was before the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was set up. In fact, several states have just opened up their applications for this new fund in the past two weeks. Others have said it won’t be up and running until mid-May. And payments have been slow. A new poll of freelance workers—who’d also claim from this fund—found that 85% hadn’t receive payments through PUA yet.
Check your state’s website to see if it has outlined how to apply for the program. You can also consult this grassroots list.
It Will Be Easier In Some States Than Others
This applies to most things about unemployment: how you apply, how quickly you’ll get cash, and even how many eligible people will get help, all depends on where you live.
In March, nearly 66% of unemployed Massachusetts residents received benefit payments, compared to just 7.6% of jobless Floridians, according to the Pew Research Center.
Bailey hasn't been successful in getting anyone at Pennsylvania's unemployment office on the phone. She says she'll keep trying to call and plans to research the state's PUA application as well. She pays for her car, gas, and utilities, though she's moving home for the summer in June, so she won't have to pay rent for a few months. As the figure in her bank account drops, her grandma has taken to cooking meals and leaving them on the porch for Bailey to pick up, so she doesn't have to spend money on food.
"I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel."
This story has been updated to correct the name of the National Academy of Social Insurance.
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