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How to apply for unemployment benefits after losing your job because of the pandemic

Do I qualify for unemployment benefits? Questions about personal finance and covid-19 relief answered by personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary.

A man looks at the closed sign in front of Illinois Department of Employment Security in Chicago on April 15. With half a million people bounced out of jobs in the past month because of the covid-19 pandemic, Illinois's unemployment safety net has been stretched to the limit. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the economy. With businesses ordered closed to help stop the spread of the disease, unemployment levels are at their highest since the Great Depression.

More than 22 million Americans applied for unemployment relief within the first four weeks of President Trump’s March 13 declaration of a national emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Cares Act included beefed-up benefits for workers laid off or furloughed because of the coronavirus. Specifically, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program expanded unemployment to individuals who don’t normally qualify for the benefit — self-employed, independent contractors, freelancers and gig workers.

The National Employment Law Project has a good summary of the three unemployment programs created under the Cares Act. Here’s an additional coronavirus unemployment guide: What to do if you get laid off or furloughed.

Q: How do I apply for unemployment benefits?

A: You have to apply through your state labor or employment office. At CareerOneStop.org, a site sponsored by the Labor Department, you’ll find information on how to file an unemployment claim in your state. Look for the link for “Unemployment Benefits Finder.” You’ll also find details about the newly added benefits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Click the link for “COVID-19 Unemployment Insurance Information.”

Unemployed workers on facing an uncertain future | Voices from the Pandemic

Q: How much can I get if I’ve been laid off or furloughed?

A: Each state determines the amount you receive and how long you’ll receive the money. Most states provide 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. Some offer considerably fewer weeks. For example, Florida offers just 12 weeks. Under the Cares Act, an additional 13 weeks of benefits funded through the federal government will be available (through December 31). You may also be eligible for an extra $600 per week (through July 31).

Q: What if I had to quit work to take care of a spouse or child?

A: Generally, you are not eligible for unemployment benefits if you voluntarily leave your job without a good cause, such as unsafe working conditions. However, if you had to quit your job for a coronavirus-related reason, you can qualify for unemployment insurance.

Q: I’m a freelancer. Do I qualify for unemployment benefits?

A: The PUA program provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to folks who wouldn’t typically be eligible for benefits, including the self-employed or independent contractors and people with a limited work history.

Q: Can I get benefits if I’m still working some hours on my job?

A: You may still be eligible for benefits if you’re partially unemployed because of the covid-19 pandemic. You’ll have to check with your state labor or employment agency to see if you qualify.

Q: I became unemployed before March largely because of the impact of the coronavirus. Can I still get help?

A: The Labor Department clarifies that benefit payments under PUA are retroactive, for weeks of unemployment, partial employment or inability to work because of covid-19 as of Jan. 27.

Q: I was furloughed. Am I still eligible to receive unemployment?

A: Yes, you can file for unemployment benefits until you are called back to work.

Q: I’m already receiving unemployment benefits. Am I eligible for additional assistance?

A: Check with your state, but it’s very likely you are entitled to the coronavirus-related extended benefits.

Q: I’ve been trying to apply for unemployment but can’t get through. What should I do?

A: Unfortunately, you just have to keep trying. Many states are struggling to handle the volume of calls and online claims for benefits.

As The Washington Post reported, one New York woman had to call hundreds of times.

Underfunded, understaffed and under siege: Unemployment offices nationwide are struggling to do their jobs

“Tammy Devitoe was so desperate for money after losing her waitress job on March 11, and waiting weeks for help from the state of New York, that she started a GoFundMe page asking for donations,” wrote The Post’s Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam. “She applied on March 12 for unemployment, but the online form said she needed to call to complete her application. She called every day, sometimes dialing a hundred times. She always got a busy signal or recording saying try again later. Devitoe finally got through on March 31.”

Q: I applied for unemployment insurance, but my claim was rejected. What are my options?

A: You have a right to appeal your denied claim. Check with your state labor employment office for instructions on how to appeal your claim.

Despite expanding unemployment to the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers, guidelines from the Labor Department may be making it harder for such workers to qualify for unemployment insurance.

“Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who has expressed concerns about unemployment insurance being too generous, has used his department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance," The Washington Post reported. "The guidance says a worker ‘may be able to return to his or her place of employment within two weeks’ of quarantining, and parents forced to stop work to care for kids after schools closed are not eligible for unemployment after the school year is over. Workers who stay home because they are older or in another high-risk group are also ineligible unless they can prove a medical professional advised them to stop working."

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia faces blowback as he curtails scope of worker relief in unemployment crisis

Q: I received an email that says I have to pay to apply for unemployment insurance. Is this true?

A: The Labor Department-sponsored site CareerOneStop issued an alert about fraudulent claims that people have to pay to file for unemployment insurance. “Please note that CareerOneStop (or any state or federal Unemployment Insurance program) will never charge a fee to provide information or file an application for benefits,” the alert said.

If you are ever unsure about such things, check with your state. Even if you can’t get through on the telephone, you’ll find information online. There will be a lot of scams related to the pandemic so please check with government agencies before giving anyone money.

Coronavirus & Jobs: What you need to know

The past two weeks wiped out all the economy’s job gains since the 2016 election

Why low-wage workers could be especially hard hit by this recession

Layoffs intensify, leading to soaring unemployment claims as coronavirus closures continue

This Silent Job Killer Is an Underrated Threat to the Economy

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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