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The Basic 411 On Unemployment Benefits

Everything you need to know before you apply.

Workin’ Girl

In the last two weeks of March, nearly 10 million Americans have submitted new unemployment claims all because of Rona. That's triple the initial 3.3 million that was reported just last week.

And if you're one who has suddenly lost your job, you're not only worried about your future and bills but also overwhelmed with the process of having to figure out the rules, loopholes and exceptions of unemployment plus get the $600 we've been hearing about in the news.

We got you.

I've put together the who, what and how of unemployment benefits as a result of the coronavirus. Keep in mind specifics vary across states but here's the basic information you'll need to know before you apply.

What are unemployment benefits?

Unemployment insurance is a joint federal-state program that provides temporary payments to an employee who loses their job through no fault of their own. It's funded by your employer (and by you, too, in a handful of states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania.)

The percentage that the employer has to pay into the fund is based on a combination of factors including how much unemployment they've had to pay out in the past. The more claims an employer has to pay out, the higher its unemployment insurance tax, which explains why some jobs will quickly contest your claim when you file.

Who’s eligible to receive unemployment?

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Generally, unemployment benefits are paid to employees who are laid off. Also, you have to have worked for that company for a certain amount of time before you were laid off and that timeframe is set by your state. However, I found out a few years ago that even if you didn't work for a company that long, you can still get unemployment. But your state will file the claim under your previous employer, or at least that's how it works in Virginia. It doesn't hurt to check because you could end up missing out on money like I almost did.

At that time, I worked in a college writing center and when the school closed for Christmas break, I learned that I could still apply for unemployment for those few weeks. I had only worked for the college for maybe three months or practically a semester.

My claim rep didn't tell me this upfront, though. What she did was schedule a phone conference with me, her and an HR rep from the company where I worked before going to the college. The claim rep basically wanted to know how much I made, my duties and why I left. Let me tell you, the HR rep wasn't exactly thrilled.

Now here's where I could've been easily denied because I voluntarily left that position. If you're ever fired for misconduct or you simply quit your job for no valid reason, you aren't eligible for unemployment benefits. But I resigned to enroll in school and pursue a brand new career and I left my old employer on good terms. In this case, I was still approved for unemployment but under my corporate employer even though I was working at the college.

Do you know what else that meant? It meant my unemployment payment was higher. In fact, it was the max and I didn't make nearly as much as I did in my previous position. So it helps to know these things in case you get a less helpful rep.

Under normal circumstances, only traditional employees are eligible while freelancers and independent contractors are ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. But thanks to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, established under the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, unemployment benefits are currently extended to the self-employed, too.

However, if you're able to telecommute and still earn your regular paycheck, you're not eligible.

And of course, if you're denied and you believe you do meet the qualifications, you can always appeal.

How much can I expect to receive and for how long?

While unemployment benefits are intended to fill in a gap, they don't quite replace your usual paycheck. In fact, those benefits are often much less than your biweekly direct deposit. Exactly how much you'll receive is determined by your state and it's some formula based on your prior earnings. That amount is also capped and taxed so you'll have to report it at the end of the year just like you would your regular paycheck. You'll get a document similar to a W2.

Depending on your state, maximum unemployment usually ranges from $190 to $1,234 per week and you can get it for 12 to 26 weeks. (A huge gap, right?) But under the federal CARES Act, recipients can get an extra $600 per week on top of that until July 31, 2020 – retroactive to March 29th in most states – and their usual unemployment for an additional 13 weeks. Self-employed workers and freelancers who lost their income to the Rona are eligible for the $600, too.

In Virginia, the weekly payment is applied to a debit card that the employment office mails to you when you initially apply and get approved. It should be the same nationwide.

How do I apply for unemployment and what do I need to do to keep getting my benefits?

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You can file online or by phone and if you live in one state but work in another, you'd apply in the state where you worked. Apply as soon as you become unemployed because normally state benefits aren't retroactive (not to be confused with the $600 that is retroactive) if you wait, say, weeks or months later. But that stipulation, along with the usual one-week waiting period, may be waived to accommodate the changes under the CARES Act. Nevertheless, work on getting what's due to you sooner rather than later.

Be sure to answer all the questions accurately and in their entirety. Note that you must be able and available for work and actively seeking work so when/if you're asked that question, respond 'yes' even if you intend to return to your old job.

In some states, you'll have to formally register for work. You'll want to check with your state on those requirements. But each week you'll also need to report where you've been looking for employment. There may be a minimum number of companies that you need to list every week.

Follow the instructions or you could end up with a lapse in benefits. You probably want to be mindful of where you apply, though. Try to stick with positions you're truly interested in instead of just aiming to meet the weekly quota because, technically, if you're offered a position, you're supposed to accept it. And you don't really want to be stuck with a job that puts you in a financial bind especially now with a pandemic relief program in place. No need to throw the $600 away.

But if you do earn any money while you're on unemployment, you have to report that, too, because you're not allowed to simultaneously receive a paycheck plus full benefits. More than likely, what you earn from that job or gig will be deducted from your weekly benefit.

Many states' systems aren't built to process the $600 increase yet so you may not see it right away but, again, that portion is retroactive. However, if you're in New York and already receiving your regular unemployment benefits, you might see your $600 this week! But those who are self-employed will have to wait a bit longer because systems need to be modified to accommodate freelancers and contractors.

The coronavirus has forced us into a world of uncertainty. We're not sure how many of us it'll affect or when any of this will really come to an end. But what we can be sure of is that we must be diligent in not only protecting our lives and those we love but also maintaining our livelihoods so that we can survive.

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