How to file for unemployment benefits if you lose your job during the coronavirus pandemic

A person walks by the entrance of the New York State Department of Labour offices in Brooklyn, which is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

The economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in mass layoffs and a historic spike in people applying for unemployment benefits across the US. This week’s jobless report of 1.43 million new claims brought total filings over a 19-week period to more than 54 million, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Since March 27, when the Cares Act passed, Americans have been receiving $US600 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits. But the enhanced benefit expires Friday, and Congress passed no measure to extend it.

Democrats wanted to extend it for another year, while the Trump administration proposed extending it by one week, an offer Democrats rejected. While the extended benefit is no longer an option, regular unemployment benefits still are.

Here’s how to file for unemployment insurance benefits, whether you’re laid off, furloughed, or have had your hours severely reduced.

How to determine whether you’re eligible for unemployment insurance

Unemployment insurance is a program that’s jointly run by the state and federal government, so while the application procedure can vary by state, the overall process and eligibility requirements are more or less the same.

As the US Department of Labour outlines on its website, you will typically qualify for benefits if you:

  • “Are unemployed through no fault of your own. In most states, this means you have to have separated from your last job due to a lack of available work.”
  • “Meet work and wage requirements. You must meet your state’s requirements for wages earned or time worked during an established period of time referred to as a “base period.” (In most states, this is usually the first four out of the last five completed calendar quarters before the time that your claim is filed.)”
  • “Meet any additional state requirements. Find details of your own state’s program.”

The Department of Labour has issued guidance to states to allow more flexibility with unemployment insurance during the coronavirus outbreak. That includes allowing states to pay benefits for workers who are quarantined and cannot go to work or workers who leave a job due to a risk of exposure or to care for a family member.

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A worker sweeps the floor after closing time at McSorley’s Old Ale House, NYC’s oldest Irish saloon, on March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Some restaurants and hotels have put their workers on zero hour schedules and told them they’re not eligible to file for unemployment benefits because they’re not technically laid off. But if you had zero earnings in the prior week and your employer didn’t offer you any hours, you’re likely eligible, according to Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

“The question isn’t whether you’re employed, it’s whether you’re working,” Stettner told Business Insider. That often includes furloughed workers and workers with severely reduced hours, he said. About half of states offer unemployment benefits for part-time workers as well.

When in doubt? Apply.

Many state unemployment websites include benefit rate calculators to help you estimate your weekly benefit amount.

Fill out an application through your state’s unemployment website

You should apply for unemployment insurance as soon as you’re no longer working. There’s usually a one-week unpaid waiting period before you can start receiving benefits, but many states, including New York, California, and Ohio, have waived it.

“Just apply. Don’t wait,” Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, told Business Insider. “There’s no reason to wait a week because you can start getting those benefits a soon as possible. It’s good for you, it’s good for the economy.”

Depending on the state, unemployment insurance claims can be filed in person, on the phone, or online. Most states encourage online applications. Particularly during this time of social distancing, online is probably your best bet.

You should file your claim with the state where you were working. If you now live in a different state than the one where you worked, of if you worked in more than one state, the state unemployment insurance agency where you now live can give you information about how to file claims with other states, according to the US Department of Labour.

“Start with your state’s unemployment insurance benefits site. You’re going to get the most recent and accurate information there and really to learn exactly what documents you need to start gathering,” Erik Josowitz, an analyst at insurance marketplace InsuranceQuotes, told Business Insider.

You’ll typically need:

  • your social security number
  • driver’s licence number of alien registration number and expiration date, if a non-citizen
  • information on all your employers in the past 18 months, including company name, supervisor’s name, address (mailing and physical location), and phone number
  • the Employer Registration number or Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) of your most recent employer (FEIN can be found on your W-2 forms)
  • the reason for working reduced hours or no longer working with the employer
  • wages earned and how you were paid (e.g. hourly, weekly, monthly)
  • your most recent separation form (DD 214 form) if you served in the military

It typically takes two to three weeks of processing time after you file your claim to get your first payment, according to the Department of Labour.

Depending on the state, you can choose to receive your payment in the form of direct deposit, a check, or a debit card.

Keeping searching for work, even if getting hired seems unlikely

In a time where a pandemic is threatening a recession and it seems entire industries, such as restaurants and hotels, are effectively shutting down, one of the baseline requirements for unemployment benefits may seem like a roadblock: that the applicant must be actively seeking a job.

Each state has its own requirements for what counts as looking for a job. In New York, for example, claimants must keep an online or written weekly “work search record” to provide if the Department of Labour asks for it. The record should includes dates, names, addresses, and numbers of employers contacted, names and/or job titles of specific people contacted, contact methods used, positions applied for, or a description of attending job fairs or workshops.

In California, you’re required to recertify online every two weeks.

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You must be actively seeking work to keep receiving unemployment benefits. Shutterstock/wichayada suwanachun

Applicants should still make every effort to search for work even if the likelihood of getting hired seems nonexistent, according to Stettner.

In most states, unemployment benefits last up to six months – but legislation extends benefits for up to 39 weeks

Most states pay benefits for 26 weeks, or about six months, Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for social insurance at the National Employment Law Project, told The New York Times.

During periods of high unemployment, claimants may be eligible for extended benefits. The recently passed CARES Act extended unemployment benefits by an additional 13 weeks, for a total of up to 39 weeks through the end of 2020. The CARES Act also extends unemployment benefits to self-employed workers, independent contractors, and those with limited work history through the end of the year.

The Department of Labour lists all 50 states’ unemployment insurances offices with phone numbers and links to informational websites.