With many people out of work, furloughed, or experiencing cuts to their hours, unemployment benefits are more important than ever. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has expanded unemployment insurance for Americans, loosening the rules for who is eligible for benefits, how much help you can get, and how long you can receive aid.
That means just about everyone who has lost their income because of the COVID-19 pandemic now qualifies for some form of unemployment insurance.
Even if you’re familiar with unemployment insurance, it’s worth catching up on the latest information. Below are some of the questions we’re seeing about unemployment insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How is coronavirus affecting the unemployment process?
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government has loosened eligibility requirements allowing gig-workers, self-employed people, and those whose hours have been cut to receive unemployment compensation. Officials have also boosted benefits, both in the amount of compensation provided and the length of time you can receive benefits.
Unfortunately, lockdowns and stay-at-home initiatives have resulted in many businesses closing their doors—and leaving their employees without work. As a result, record numbers of Americans are applying for benefits. The $2 trillion coronavirus relief deal will help fund these additional needs, but the claims process will likely take longer for many applicants.
In short: more people are eligible for more benefits, and more people are applying every day.
While the rule changes were made by the federal government, state governments administer the benefits. You have to file for unemployment in the state where you live, and many state unemployment offices are overwhelmed by new applications. You can expect longer wait times, and it’s important to have all your information in order before you file a claim.
Can self-employed people and gig-workers receive unemployment?
Yes. Under the new rules, gig workers (like Uber or Lyft drivers), people who are self-employed, freelancers, and contract workers are all eligible for benefits if they are unable to work because of COVID-19.
Normally, you wouldn’t be able to receive unemployment benefits unless you work for a company that pays into the program, and most self-employed and gig-workers don’t fall into that category. However, the government is allowing many of these workers to collect unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they’re still able to bring in a portion of their usual earnings.
I’m self-employed. Should I apply for unemployment or a COVID-19 small business loan?
On April 3, Congress enacted a loan program called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to help small businesses stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program works like this: Any business with fewer than 500 employees—and that includes sole proprietors, freelancers, and gig workers—is eligible for a loan that (1) doesn’t require collateral, (2) has an interest rate of only 1%, and (3) can be fully forgiven if the business meets certain criteria.2
You can get a loan amounting to 2.5 times your average monthly payroll for the past 12 months. (So, for example, if your average monthly payroll was $5,000, you would qualify for a $12,500 loan.) For the loan to be forgiven, this money must be spent on payroll, rent, mortgage interest, and utilities. If you’re self-employed (and you are your business’ only employee), these requirements might not be difficult for you to satisfy.
So compare payout amounts before deciding whether unemployment insurance or small-business loan is best for you.
For more insight, read our Guide to COVID-19 Assistance Programs for the Self-Employed.
How much money can I get from unemployment insurance?
That depends on where you live. Caps on unemployment benefits vary from state to state. For example, in New York you can receive up to $504 in assistance per week, while in Florida the maximum weekly benefit is $275. But everyone who qualifies under the new rules will get an additional $600 a week until July 31.1
Do I need to be actively looking for a job in order to receive unemployment?
That was the case in the past, but during the pandemic that requirement is being suspended in most states.
What is a furlough?
A furlough is a strategy employers sometimes use to save money by requiring some or all employees to take unpaid time off or work fewer hours. Many employers are using furloughs during the coronavirus pandemic to avoid having to lay off staff or otherwise reduce their workforce.
Previously, furloughed employees might not receive much unemployment compensation if their furlough lasted less than a week or simply resulted in a cutback of hours. However, many states have waived the one-week waiting period requirement and are paying some benefits to workers who have lost a portion of their typical working hours due to furlough.
Are unemployment benefits different for furloughed workers?
No. The unemployment benefits available to furloughed workers are very similar to the benefits offered to people who have been laid off. Plus, most furloughed employees still receive health care and other benefits from their employers while on furlough, if they received those benefits while working.
What if I have to stop working to care for my child?
If you have to care for your child during the work week because their school or day care has temporarily closed due to COVID-19, you can claim unemployment benefits. The same is true if you now find yourself responsible for an elderly parent or other household member whose care facility has been shut down.3
Another option: if you work for a business with fewer than 500 employees, you might qualify for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave—at two-thirds of your normal pay, capped at $1,000 per week—if the coronavirus pandemic requires you to care for a child whose school or day care has closed.4
You can’t qualify for unemployment insurance and family leave at the same time, so your choice will depend on which benefit works best for you. However, if you take family leave and are still not able to go back to work after it runs out, you are then eligible for unemployment.5
Can I get health insurance if I’m unemployed?
Yes. If you’ve been furloughed instead of laid off, you can continue to receive health coverage from your employer. Otherwise, you may be eligible for continuation of health coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) or coverage from the health insurance marketplace. Some states and the District of Columbia have opened their health insurance marketplaces to allow people to buy coverage before open enrollment, which usually occurs in the fall.6
How long will it take to receive unemployment benefits?
Usually, there’s a one-week waiting period before you can begin receiving unemployment benefits, followed by an additional week or two before your first check arrives in the mail. Because unemployment offices across the nation are seeing historic numbers of applications, however, it may take longer to process your request.
I’m already on unemployment. Can I apply for extra benefits?
Yes. If your current unemployment compensation isn’t enough to meet your needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can apply for an additional $600 per week.7
How long can I receive unemployment benefits?
The amount of time you can receive unemployment benefits varies by state, up to 26 weeks in most places. But new rules in response to COVID-19 allow for extended benefit periods—up to 39 weeks in some states. You’ll need to continue renewing your claim each week to keep officials up to date on your employment status. Check with your state unemployment agency to learn how long your benefits period might be.
General unemployment questions
What is unemployment insurance?
Unemployment insurance provides compensation to you if you’ve lost your job through no fault of your own. Typically, that means when you’ve been laid off or furloughed. If you’ve quit your job or been fired (depending on the situation), you usually won’t receive benefits.
While requirements vary by state, you need to meet specific work and wage requirements to be approved for unemployment insurance. Due to the coronavirus, however, provisions in your state have likely become more lenient.
How does unemployment insurance work?
Employers pay into an unemployment fund that covers unemployment compensation for residents of their state. Normally, you would have to prove you’re looking for work while receiving benefits, but in many states, these requirements have been relaxed or waived if you’re sick or taking care of someone who is.
The best time to apply for unemployment insurance is immediately after you lose your job. Due to an unprecedented volume of unemployment claims across the country, it may take longer than usual to process your request.
How do I file for unemployment?
You have to apply for unemployment compensation in the state in which you’ve been working. If you recently worked in a different state than the one you currently live in (or have worked in multiple states), your home state’s employment department can direct you to information about applying for benefits in another state.
The application will ask questions about your most recent employer(s), the addresses and dates of your former employment, and your personal information. To ensure the fastest processing time possible, make sure your application is complete and accurate before turning it in. Processors say the more straightforward your application is, the faster they can process it.8
To start your application, find your state’s unemployment website.
1 CareerOneStop, Unemployment Benefits Finder
2 U.S. Small Business Administration, Paycheck Protection Program
3 USA Today, “Laid off or furloughed because of COVID-19? We answer your questions”
4 U.S. Department of Labor, Families First Coronavirus Response Act
5 Forbes, “What You Need To Know About Expanded Unemployment Benefits for COVID-19”
6 New York Times, “Eleven States Now Letting Uninsured Sign Up for Obamacare”
7 U.S. Department of Labor, “Unemployment Insurance Relief During COVID-19 Outbreak”
8 Ask a Manager, “Here’s What an Unemployment Benefits Worker Wants You to Know”