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Published: Oct 26, 2020 13 min read
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Broken as it is, unemployment insurance (UI) remains a vital lifeline for the jobless. But it takes a lot of work, ironically, to navigate the process.

That's especially true these days, when federal emergency benefits are running alongside traditional ones, broadening the scope of help, but sometimes complicating the process of getting it.

Standard UI is a joint program between the federal government and states. It replaces the wages workers have lost temporarily, as long as they are actively looking for a new job. On average, the benefits will cover about half of someone’s previous wages, and in most states last for up to 26 weeks.

Of course — like everything else — UI has changed pretty dramatically in the wake of the pandemic. In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, a roughly $2 trillion emergency aid bill which included an extra $600 weekly payment for qualifying jobless workers through July, and expanded the number of weeks they can apply. The bill also included benefits for those who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits — like freelancers, gig workers, and people who are self-employed — in the form of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

There’s a lot about unemployment insurance that varies by state, including what makes you eligible, and how long it takes for your check to arrive in the mail (or direct deposit). In Florida, people can get up to $275 per week for 12 weeks. But Californians can get up to $450 per week for 26 weeks. And while many states send the money directly to your bank account, Maryland loads them on a prepaid debit card. Make sure to check your state’s online unemployment insurance portal for state-specific information.

First step: Figure out if you’re eligible

Eligibility for unemployment insurance varies state-by-state, but if you lose your job through no fault of your own, you should be able to get benefits, says Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). (Your employer will be asked about the job loss, so if you quit or were terminated for a good reason, you won’t be eligible.)

That's not the case for everyone. Immigrants must meet certain immigration status regulations to be eligible, for example, and people who have been out of work for a long period of time and have already exhausted their benefits may not qualify either.

Employers handle layoffs differently, and that also has a say in your benefits. If you get severance, for example, it could impact your eligibility, and the amount of money you qualify for. Same goes for vacation or sick days paid out after your last day, says Douglas Holmes, president of Strategic Services on Unemployment & Workers’ Compensation. Being on Social Security doesn't disqualify you from getting UI, but other retirement benefits — like pensions — may be deducted.

Some people who lose their jobs have other sources of income coming in through side gigs, which can offset how much UI money they qualify for.

By that same token, you may still be able to get benefits if you were able to hang on to your job but your wages dropped significantly, like if your boss cut your team's hours to avoid layoffs. Some employers do this through federal work share programs.

Hot tip: if you end up finding a new job that doesn’t pay as much you got at your last job, still apply for UI. You can earn up to a certain portion of your weekly benefit amount (which is generally about 45% of what you were making before) and still qualify for unemployment insurance, Evermore says.

Second step: Apply

Losing your job can cause a lot of stress. But it's important to file for unemployment insurance as soon as possible.

Before you do anything, look into your state's requirements and gather the necessary materials. (You can find the specific documents you'll need to apply on your state's department of labor website.) Usually, that includes two forms of I.D., addresses for every employer who's hired you for over the last 18 months, and proof of pay (like pay stubs).

You should also have your W2s ready. Even if the state you're filing in doesn't require these documents as part of its UI application, they might be necessary for a worst-case scenario, like if you receive less than you qualify for, or are denied benefits altogether.

If you're filing online rather than in-person (which, let's be honest, pretty much everyone chose even before there was a public health emergency) having your ducks in a row before you log on will make things a million times easier. Especially since state websites have a bad habit of timing out without warning, Evermore says.

Once you have a UI portal password, write it down and keep it somewhere safe. It's uniquely hard to change these passwords, Evermore says. Some states make you call, speak to a real person (which is even more difficult to accomplish these days) and ask them to mail you (yes, as in snail mail) a new one.

Third step: Wait

Most states have a “waiting week” for all UI benefits. So while you can apply as soon as you lose your job, you won't receive benefits for at least seven days. Once you're deemed eligible, it often takes another week for the money to actually arrive in your bank account or by mail, says Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

During the pandemic, people have had to wait much longer due to the sheer numbers of applicants. In the early months, unemployment websites crashed and people couldn't get their calls to unemployment offices through. In April, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that millions of people weren't able to file a UI claim at all.

Normally, once your application gets through, you'll need to demonstrate every one or two weeks that you're able to work, and are currently looking for employment. The federal government asked states to waive these "work search requirements" at the beginning of the pandemic — as well as that "waiting week" — but don't assume yours has. Some states, like Missouri, have already reinstated the original requirements.

To prove that you’re searching for a job, document communications with potential employers you're interviewing with, or the staff of unemployment agencies. In some states, you’re not eligible for UI if you need childcare to work, so efforts that show you're looking for childcare can count as documentation, Dutta-Gupta says.

It's best to keep track of your job-search efforts in a document or spreadsheet — complete with names and contact information — in case those records are required to verify your continuing eligibility.

What if I …

...am a furloughed worker who still hasn’t been offered my job back?

You can still qualify for unemployment benefits even if your boss gave you a "return to work date."

What you cannot do is collect both a paycheck and a full UI check So if you return to work, you need to either stop applying for weekly benefits or adjust your wages in your application.

...moved to a new state shortly before COVID hit?

Normally, you’re expected to file for unemployment benefits in the state you live in.

You can, however, file an interstate application in one state based on wages you made in a different state or on wages earned in more than one state. Look into the UI laws in each state and consider which state would give you the highest benefit amount, the longest period to receive weekly benefits, and the best option for allocating of sick and vacation pay, Holmes says.

States typically have a dedicated unit that specializes in interstate and combined wage claims that can help you choose one state over the other, he adds.

...am usually paid in cash?

In most states, you can file a good-faith attestation of what you were paid, which is how tipped workers like servers and baristas generally qualify for UI, Evermore says. Since these workers have to claim tips to pay taxes on them, there are generally already records available they can refer to.

You can still file a good-faith attestation if you don't have documentation, but your odds of getting UI is slimmer.

...am a freelancer, gig worker or independent contractor?

As of this writing, these workers are still eligible for federal PUA payments. While the process to get the benefits varies by state, by June, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico were paying out PUA. But keep in mind that you can’t qualify for both PUA and UI, so if you had a W2 job that qualifies you for UI, you can’t also claim PUA, even if you lost your freelance job.

The benefit amount for PUA is calculated the same way as it is for Disaster Unemployment Assistance, another federal program used in times of crisis. That is, PUA pays a minimum of half of the average UI benefit in your state (NELP says those amounts average about $190 per week), and increases based on your proof of income. You can use your tax returns from the previous year to establish the amount, Holmes says.

...haven’t had a job in a long time?

The CARES Act extended unemployment insurance for an additional 13 weeks over each state's limit, meaning most people automatically qualified for 39 weeks. Most states also offer extended benefits — between 13 and 20 extra weeks, depending on the state. But if you were unemployed for several months before the pandemic or have otherwise exhausted these benefits, you are no longer eligible for UI.

...am able to work but live with a high-risk family member?

If you're immunocompromised or have otherwise been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine due to concern of exposure to the coronavirus, and that's keeping you from work, you are likely eligible for PUA, Dutta-Gupta says.

As of now, there's no federal guidance on eligibility pertaining to people concerned about transmitting the virus to a high-risk family member. However, in some states, people who would be able to work but are providing care for a high-risk person will have a good cause for not returning to work and may be able to collect unemployment benefits, he says.

...have to stay home to watch my kids?

If your child’s school has reopened and you’re given the choice to have them attend virtually or in-person, you won’t be able to collect PUA benefits if you choose to keep your child at home, Dutta-Gupta says.

In some states, people who are otherwise able to work but have to provide childcare at home may be able to collect state unemployment benefits — states determine this on a case-by-case basis. Some states, like California, have paid leave programs that accommodate parents who need to stay home to watch their kids, some for up to 16 weeks per year), Dutta-Gupta adds.

...am a college student or recent graduate?

If you are a full-time student, the presumption is that you’re not available to take a job — although there are some states that are flexible about this, Holmes says. (After all, plenty of students both work and go to school full-time). You do qualify for PUA if you’re a recent graduate who had an offer rescinded because of the pandemic. But if you don't have any demonstrable tie to the workforce, you’re likely not eligible.

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