Are You Out of Work? You’ll Need Our Go-To Guide to Applying for Unemployment Insurance

Unemployment Benefits

The basic guidance is: apply now. Even if you think you may not be eligible.

This is the second article in a series intended to demystify the programs available to individuals, small businesses, and nonprofits under the fiscal programs recently enacted by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This article focuses on the process to apply for unemployment insurance benefits.

Background – On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which provided additional flexibility for state unemployment insurance agencies and additional administrative funding to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law on March 27. It expands states’ ability to provide unemployment insurance (UI) for many workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including for workers who are not ordinarily eligible for unemployment benefits. The U.S. Department of Labor has a resources page available here.

UI support is handled by the US Department of Labor (DOL), not the Small Business Administration (SBA). Support for small business is handled by the SBA. My first article spells out the process for accessing small business programs. 

The CARES Act makes unemployment benefits available to independent contractors and sole proprietors and extends the duration of benefits from 26 weeks (available in most states) to 39 weeks. The Act also provides an additional $600 per week in benefits for the first four months. Specifically, the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program (PUA) expands state-based unemployment insurance to cover independent contractors and sole proprietors who are unable to work due to COVID-19. The benefits will be available through December 31, 2020, and will be calculated on the rules of your specific state, with the exception that individuals must be covered by no less than one-half of the state’s average weekly unemployment insurance.

How Do I Apply?

To receive unemployment insurance benefits, you need to file a claim with the unemployment insurance program in the state where you worked. Depending on the state, claims may be filed in person, by telephone, or online.

Each state has its own procedures and application process. For example, California’s UI process is handled through the California Employment Development Department. Since the pandemic hit, the rate in processed applications in California has, understandably, exploded, spiking to an astounding 370 percent increase. The states are also waiting for guidance from the Labor Department on when and how to distribute the COVID-19 kicker — $600 in extra weekly benefits. 

Here are the specific steps recommended by the DOL for individuals seeking to apply:

  • You should contact your state’s unemployment insurance program as soon as possible after becoming unemployed.
  • Generally, you should file your claim with the state where you worked. If you worked in a state other than the one where you now live or if you worked in multiple states, the state unemployment insurance agency where you now live can provide information about how to file your claim with other states.
  • When you file a claim, you will be asked for certain information, such as addresses and dates of your former employment. To make sure your claim is not delayed, be sure to give complete and correct information.
  • Have your payroll information handy — states will require this information when you apply, in addition to information such as your social security number, address, and the name and address of your past employers.
  • Independent contractors can also apply for benefits — if you are in this category you’ll need to access your state’s UI information and review their process for ICs.
  • Find the contact information for your state’s unemployment office to start your claim.

The U.S. Department of Labor has answers to frequently asked questions for independent contractors, non-profits paying into your state’s UI system, or if you have exhausted regular UI benefits. The basic guidance is: apply now. Even if you think you may not be eligible, the purpose of the COVID-19 fiscal programs is to help as many as possible, even individuals who are not salaried employees. Your state employment department has guidance that will help you go through the process.