What to know about applying for unemployment insurance during coronavirus crisis

(NEW YORK) — The novel coronavirus pandemic has caused unemployment levels to skyrocket, delivering a massive blow to the U.S. economy as a whole and shuttering, at least temporarily, thousands of businesses across the country.

A record-smashing 6.6 million people filed for unemployment in the week ending March 28 amid the pandemic, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) on Thursday.

If you lost your job due to the COVID-19 outbreak, you most likely qualify for cash benefits that are jointly funded by the federal government and your state. Here is what you need to know about how to get your unemployment insurance:

Who qualifies for unemployment benefits?

Eligibility guidelines can vary state-to-state, but you usually qualify for unemployment insurance if you lost your job due to lack of available work, according to the DOL.

New federal rules amid the pandemic expanded eligibility to include those who — as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak — were temporarily or permanently laid off, had their hours reduced, are quarantined and can’t work, are unable to work due to a risk of exposure or are caring for a family member who has been infected.

In most states, you might also need to meet a state’s requirement for time worked or wages earned during a “base period” before you were laid off or unable to work.

You can find the details for your state’s specific requirements on the DOL-designated website here.

How much money will I receive?

Under the new provisions, workers are eligible for an additional $600 a week on top of their normal benefit, which in February averaged $387 a week nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). In February, regular benefits ranged from $215 a week in Mississippi to $550 a week in Massachusetts, the CBPP said.

Benefits are also extended up to an additional 13 weeks beyond the maximum 26 weeks normally provided under the new law.

What if I am a self-employed or gig economy worker, do I still qualify?

Previously, most self-employed or gig workers did not qualify for unemployment benefit insurance. The $2 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package, however, expanded benefits to include those who are self-employed or gig workers and have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, however, most states “are in the process of updating their websites to reflect the new laws,” the DOL said.

“If you don’t see updated information yet, you should still apply,” the DOL says online. “If you have already applied, then once your state updates their information you will receive your full benefits or be notified if your state needs more information.”

Even if you only “think you might be eligible,” the DOL urges you to still “apply now.”

How can you apply?

You will need to file a claim with the unemployment insurance program in the state where you worked, but each state has different filing requirements. In most states, you can file the claim by telephone or online, again, depending on the state.

The DOL recommends contacting your unemployment insurance program as soon as possible after you become unemployed.

You will likely be asked for information such as the addresses of your former jobs and the dates you worked there. It usually takes approximately two or three weeks after you file your claim to receive your first benefit check, the DOL says.

More information on how to apply in your state is available here.

What happens if you can’t get through?

With a record-shattering number of people applying for unemployment, there have been reports of the sites crashing and grueling wait times on phone lines.

The DOL recommends being persistent and patient, and trying at different times of the day as often as you can.

“Many state websites, phone numbers, and unemployment systems are overwhelmed by extremely high levels of traffic,” the DOL says on its website. “State unemployment agencies ask that you have patience if you have trouble getting to a website or filing your claim. They suggest trying at different times of the day, and to keep trying.”

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