On March 27, 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, a $2 trillion stimulus package that pumps money into many areas of our economy that have been stressed by COVID-19. (CARES stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security.) For those who have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic, the CARES Act greatly expands unemployment benefits by making more workers eligible, adding $600 to every weekly benefit check, and extending benefits for 13 more weeks.
Expanded Eligibility for Unemployment Benefits
The CARES Act authorizes the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which makes many more workers eligible for unemployment benefits during the coronavirus public health emergency. Under current rules, the program expires at the end of 2020.
Gig Workers, Freelancers, Contractors, and Part-Time Workers Can Receive Benefits
In every state, employees qualify for benefits if they are temporarily out of work through no fault of their own. However, prior to the CARES Act, some categories of workers could not get benefits, including independent contractors (freelancers, gig workers, and the self-employed). Under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, these workers will now be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Part-time workers are also eligible for coronavirus-related unemployment benefits, even if state law does not ordinarily allow them to collect benefits. And, workers who do not have a sufficient work history to qualify for benefits under their state’s usual eligibility rules might still qualify.
All Workers Who Are Out of Work Due to COVID-19 Likely Qualify for Benefits
Many states have relaxed their eligibility rules in the last few weeks so more workers qualify for benefits. For example, some states are granting unemployment benefits to workers who are:
- caring for a family member with COVID-19, or
- caring for children whose school or care facility has been shut down.
If your state has expanded eligibility in these ways and you are out of work for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic, you may now qualify for state unemployment benefits. (You’ll find frequently updated summaries of COVID-19-related changes to state rules here.)
Even if your state has not changed its rules, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program will probably cover you. For example, you will be eligible for benefits if you are out of work for any of these reasons:
- You have a COVID-19 diagnosis or are experiencing symptoms and seeking a diagnosis.
- A member of your household has a COVID-19 diagnosis.
- You are caring for a family or household member with a COVID-19 diagnosis.
- Your child or other household member for whom you are the primary caregiver is unable to attend school or another facility that has closed due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
- You are unable to go to work because of a quarantine or because a health care provider has advised you to self-quarantine.
- You were scheduled to begin a job that no longer exists or that you can’t get to for reasons relating to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
- The head of your household died as a result of COVID-19, and you have become the household’s breadwinner or major support.
- You have to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19.
- Your workplace is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
Bigger Unemployment Checks
Each state has its own formula for determining the size of unemployment checks, subject to a maximum amount set by state law. Benefit amounts vary widely, from a maximum benefit in Mississippi of $235 per week to a maximum of more than $800 in Massachusetts.
Under the CARES Act, however, you can get an additional $600 per week, called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, on top of your weekly state benefit. Those newly eligible for benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program will also get this additional bump. This will greatly increase weekly unemployment payments, at least until July 31, 2020, which is the provision’s current expiration date.
The CARES Act also encourages states to waive the one-week waiting period that would otherwise keep you from getting benefits for the first week you are unemployed. The federal government will reimburse those states that agree to pay claimants for this waiting week. Many states have already eliminated their waiting week; most of the rest will likely follow, now that the feds are picking up the tab.
More Weeks of Unemployment Benefits
In most states, applicants can receive benefits for up to 26 weeks. (Some states are less generous; find out how long benefits last in your state.) The CARES Act provides an additional 13 weeks of benefits—called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation—to claimants after their state benefits run out. Workers who would not otherwise be eligible for benefits under state law but are receiving benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program can get up to 39 total weeks of benefits.
How to Apply for Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits
The CARES Act adds new rules and benefit entitlements at a time when claims are already overwhelming state unemployment agencies. States will scramble to implement some parts of the CARES Act—particularly the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which creates a federal entitlement that the states must administer, for categories of workers who don’t qualify for state benefits. And these changes are hitting at a time when state unemployment websites are crashing and filers are facing hours-long hold times.
But the bottom line is this: If you are out of work (or underemployed) for any reason relating to COVID-19, you should file an application for benefits with your state’s unemployment agency right away. Just prepare to be persistent.