Everything You Need to Know About Filing for Unemployment Benefits During Coronavirus Pandemic

Diane Herbst

PEOPLE’s Real Tips for Real Life presents practical answers to some of the most commonly asked questions around finance, employment and preparing for the future — even when that future can seem very uncertain.

More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic slammed businesses across the country — with 2.1 million new claims last week, according to U.S. government figures.

To help with these historic job losses, federal lawmakers in March passed a $2 trillion relief package called the CARES Act that includes increased benefits for states to pay these workers. This includes bigger unemployment checks with an extra $600 per week, an increased length of payments and an extension of unemployment to workers who would not usually qualify — including the self-employed and gig economy workers, as detailed by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

But with state unemployment offices overwhelmed with requests, many desperate workers across the country have been unable to get through via phone or online to file a claim. And when they do, payments have sometimes been delayed for months.

"Congress passed these great new expanded benefits and it was the exact right thing to do," says Michele Evermore, a senior researcher and policy analyst for NELP, "but we are relying on a system that has been at best neglected and at worst, undermined in some states over the last decade."

Read on for a guide to help you secure the benefits you deserve.

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What is unemployment insurance?

If you lose your job due to a layoff or furlough, you can apply for unemployment insurance — temporary income that's usually paid weekly by states. "This is your money that you're entitled to," says Evermore. "This is like any other kind of insurance; if you get into a car accident, there's very few people who would say, 'Well, I'm not going to the take the car insurance money.'"

How do you file?

You should file your claim with the state where you worked. The U.S. Labor Department's Unemployment Benefits Finder has links to every state program, and advice on how to file a claim — primarily done by phone or online since many offices are closed due to the pandemic.

What is new under the CARES Act?

Workers get an extra $600 per week through July 31, in addition to their state unemployment benefit, which varies by state. Additionally, the act allows states to provide an extra 13 weeks of benefits (up to 39 total) through Dec. 31 to help those who remain unemployed after exhausting the standard length of state benefits, according to the Department of Labor.

Who’s eligible for benefits?

The CARES Act also expands workers' eligibility for benefits to those who would not usually qualify for unemployment — the self-employed and gig-economy workers such as Uber drivers, as well as workers who don't have a long enough work history to qualify for state benefits.

You may be eligible if any of the following are true, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and NELP:

  • Your employer permanently or temporarily laid you off due to coronavirus measures.
  • Your employer reduced your work hours due to coronavirus measures.
  • You are self-employed and have lost income due to coronavirus measures.
  • You’re quarantined and can’t work due to coronavirus.
  • You’re unable to work due to a risk of exposure to coronavirus.
  • You can’t work because you’re caring for a family member with coronavirus.
  • You are providing care for a child or other household member who can’t attend school or work because it is closed due to coronavirus.
  • You have become the breadwinner for a household because the head of household has died as a direct result of the coronavirus.

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Can all unemployed workers get unemployment?

No. Undocumented workers or those working under the table for cash and don't have pay records can't collect, says NELP's Evermore.

How do I find out if I am eligible for unemployment benefits?

"People are asking me, 'Well, I have this weird situation where I worked here and then I worked there and I don't know if I should apply,'" says Evermore. "My answer to that is 'Just try it.' Because the worst thing that can happen if you're honest and you tell them exactly what your situation is, you get denied."

What do I do if I can’t get through to my state’s website or phone line to file?

"Definitely don't give up," says Evermore. "You're leaving a lot of money on the table if you're not able to get through. States really are starting to process the majority of their claims at this point. If you tried in the past to get through and didn't, now's the time to go back."

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What can I do to help along my claim? 

Be very careful to enter everything accurately to avoid an unnecessary denial of benefits. "In a lot of states, these systems are set up to deny at any point because there's been this real emphasis on policing fraud," says Evermore.

And don't lose your password. "It's really hard to reset it, and some unemployment systems put a password in the physical mail," she says, which means that people losing their passwords "are locked out of the system for days and weeks."

What do I do if I lost my health insurance along with my job?

You may be able to obtain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act at HealthCare.gov if you lost your job within the last 60 days.

Alternatively, you can temporarily keep your employer-sponsored health insurance by paying the full premium yourself, known as COBRA.

If you were furloughed, but not laid off, find out if your employer-sponsored health insurance will continue.

You may qualify for Medicaid, a state-federal health insurance program for low-income people, families and children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides low-cost health insurance coverage for children in families who earn too much income to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford to purchase private health insurance.

Federally funded health centers across the country allow you to pay what you can afford, based on income.

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Loan Options

If you need to borrow money for help paying bills right away, several short-term, low-interest online loan options may be available, according to NerdWallet, a personal finance website.

For a comprehensive list of banks nationwide and the help they are offering, including loans, check out the American Bankers Association website.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.