As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the nation, many Americans are losing their jobs as nonessential businesses grind to a halt. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. workers lost their jobs or had their hours cut as of March 14, according to one poll, and that number is expected to grow. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 3 million jobs will be lost by this summer.
Applying for unemployment insurance is one way eligible workers can get back some of the income they used to generate. Unemployment insurance is temporary income that eligible workers receive when they lose their job through no fault of their own. If you’re wondering if you qualify, don’t count yourself out of consideration.
“If you think you might be eligible for benefits, by all means claim,” said Stephen Woodbury, the senior economist for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. “It may not be a simple process, it’ll take some time, it may be frustrating because the website crashes or you have to hang on the line, but do it.”
Here are answers to questions that may be on your mind if you lost your job because of this pandemic and are navigating your state’s unemployment insurance system:
When can I apply?
As soon as you believe you have a claim, you should apply, experts said.
“Immediately” is how Michele Evermore, the National Employment Law Project’s senior policy analyst for social insurance, put it. “No matter how well-funded or well-staffed a UI agency is, it often takes a couple of weeks to process benefits even in the best of times.”
So far, states including California, New York, Washington, Texas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have waived the typical one-week waiting period between the time you lose your job and when you become eligible to collect unemployment insurance.
How much money should I expect to receive for unemployment?
Benefits are usually a percentage of the income from the job you held, but can vary dramatically from state to state. The amount you get is determined by a formula in your state’s law that factors in what you earned and how many hours or weeks you worked.
“Workers can expect to see wage replacement of 40-50%, maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less,” Evermore said.
How long can I collect unemployment benefits?
Most states let you collect benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks. North Carolina, Georgia and Florida have among the lowest number of benefit weeks in the country, because they award UI on a sliding scale based on overall unemployment rates. In those states, the number ranges from 12 weeks to 20 weeks.
I have a job, but I have been placed on unpaid leave or furloughed. Do I qualify?
Experts encourage professionals who are furloughed or put on unpaid leave because they were quarantined to apply. If you’re placed on unpaid leave, you may qualify because “it’s lack of work, it’s no fault of your own,” Woodbury said.
But if you volunteer for unpaid leave due to the coronavirus, like some airline staff are being asked to, you may not qualify for unemployment insurance.
If your hours are cut because you’ve been put under a mandatory quarantine, you may also be entitled to partial unemployment benefits.
How exactly do I apply?
You should file a claim in the state where you worked. If you worked in multiple states, you can discuss with the state unemployment office where you live on how you should file in the other states.
Many states require you to file online. The U.S. Department of Labor’s list will direct you to your state’s website or note if there’s an option to phone. Be prepared with your employer’s address and the first and last day of your employment.
Based on the high volume of applicants, states including New York and Kentucky are now asking claimants to follow an application schedule based on the alphabetic order of their names.
Is it quicker to apply by phone or online?
Woodbury said most claims are made online, but there’s “no hard and fast rule” on which path is easier or quicker.
Some states let you apply both on the phone and online; others don’t. You can check the options for your state on this Department of Labor website. Oregon highlighted its phone option after online crashes.
My state’s unemployment site crashed while I was applying. What should I do?
Multiple states like New York and New Jersey reported that unemployment insurance websites crashed as applications surged.
If this happens to your application, Woodbury’s advice is to start over, which he recognizes is frustrating. He highlighted how Washington state is hiring more than 100 staff for its unemployment insurance program to deal with increasing demand.
Whatever you do, don’t lose the password to your application process, Evermore said. “Many state UI systems can’t retrieve your password electronically. They may mail it to you,” she said.
I am undocumented. Do I qualify for unemployment insurance?
If you are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives you relief from deportation and a work permit, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. In California, for example, you can apply for unemployment insurance if you are in satisfactory immigration status and authorized to work in the U.S.
Iliana Perez is the director of research and entrepreneurship at the San Francisco-based organization Immigrants Rising, which compiled a resource guide for undocumented immigrants during the coronavirus pandemic. She said DACA recipients “should definitely apply.”
But if you are undocumented without work authorization, you will be ineligible for UI, Perez said. If that’s your situation, she suggests you consider additional ways to generate income through freelancing or entrepreneurship.
I am on sick leave due to coronavirus. Do I qualify?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, if the leave is paid, then no, you can’t get unemployment insurance at the same time.
But if you’re on unpaid medical leave due to COVID-19, you may qualify. In Virginia, if a medical or public health official tells a worker to quarantine themselves and the worker is not receiving paid sick or medical leave from their employer, the worker may be eligible to get unemployment benefits.
What if you choose not to work and self-quarantine because you believe you are asymptomatic? In Missouri, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits “if the employer required the individual to stay home but did not offer telework.”
The Department of Labor recently issued guidance to states saying that they can be more flexible with their unemployment insurance eligibility due to coronavirus. If you have to leave your job because of a risk of exposure or to care for a family member who had the coronavirus, you should be eligible, the federal government advised.
I’m a gig worker. Do I qualify?
You should try, because even if your company calls you an independent contractor, you may be misclassified.
“To be eligible, people have to be employees. What people need to know is that it is not up to the company that hires you to decide if you are an employee or not, even if they call you an independent contractor,” said Terri Gerstein, director of the state and local enforcement project at the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program. “Ultimately that is a legal determination that the state decides when you apply for unemployment insurance.”
New Jersey, for example, ordered Uber to pay $650 million in unemployment and disability insurance taxes for misclassifying drivers as independent contractors.
Woodbury noted that if the federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance program is eventually activated, it would make sure that gig workers, contract workers, and self-employed workers would qualify for unemployment assistance due to coronavirus. “All it takes is a presidential declaration,” he said.
What happens if I get denied?
You can be denied for making false statements, or if you voluntarily left your job, or if you’re not ready or able to work. But you do have the right to appeal. Check with your state’s unemployment agency for how the appeals process works.
What happens if I get approved for unemployment benefits?
Once your claim has been accepted, a check should come in the mail or through a direct deposit you set up. If everything goes smoothly, you should start receiving benefits in two to three weeks, Woodbury said.
In most states, receiving unemployment insurance comes with the condition that you continually verify that you are ready, able and willing to work immediately, and that you are actively looking for work.