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?


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?


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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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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