As lockdowns and stay-at-home orders effectively ground the economy to a halt, tens of millions of Americans are facing unemployment and filing for benefits. This includes many who've never spent significant time out of work — and who have no idea how to apply.
To complicate things, Congress has temporarily extended unemployment benefits nationwide, and added $600 to each recipient's weekly check. But with most states reopening their economies to some degree, the jury's out on what's ahead for those out of work.
If figuring out your unemployment situation seems overwhelming, we've got you covered. Here's what you need to know.
How does unemployment work, and who qualifies?
You might assume unemployment insurance is a federal program with consistent rules. In reality, benefits are determined by the state where you work. This can make it hard to find relevant information for your situation.
"It's like 50 different countries, so it's very confusing," says Sandy Smith, a New York City HR professional.
Most states' benefits depend on your previous income: The more money you earned, the more you can qualify for. In California, for example, weekly unemployment checks range from $40 to $450 Opens in new window.
Unemployment benefits are generally available only if you've been employed for the past year, whether at one or multiple jobs. You're eligible if you've been laid off permanently, furloughed temporarily or worked only part-time. (Also, you must be a U.S. citizen or legal alien; undocumented workers don't qualify, even if they pay taxes.)
To see your eligibility, check the unemployment benefits section of your state's labor department website. You should find a table with payment levels and filing requirements.
How the CARES Act affects unemployment
Passed by Congress in March, the CARES Act included Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). This program offers extra money and more time on unemployment benefits. States now may offer benefits to those who hadn't qualified previously.
Most states limit benefits to 13 to 26 weeks, though some, like Montana and Massachusetts Opens in new window, have longer periods. Some have also added an extra 13 weeks thanks to PUA. "For some states," Smith notes, "unemployment will go until March or April of next year."
Also, the program includes an extra $600 a week in temporary help on top of whatever weekly amount the filer's state provides. (The extra payments will end July 31 unless Congress passes another relief program.)
Even so, that provision has been controversial. For lower earners, the extra $600 may replace all — or more — of their income. That's led to concerns that some people may want to stay unemployed rather than return to work.