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Coronavirus unemployment: Who is covered, how to apply and how much it pays

With no end in sight to the COVID-19 crisis, here's everything you need to know about the current state of unemployment benefits.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The human toll of the coronavirus epidemic has been immense: 7.5 million infected and 212,000 fatalities in the US alone. But the financial impact has been even more vast, affecting businesses -- and their employees -- of every size and across most industries. The government launched a number of initiatives to help earlier this year, including a stimulus payment and the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses as an incentive to keep employees on the payroll. 

Nevertheless, tens of millions of people have filed for unemployment insurance since the beginning of the outbreak. And while Congress doesn't expect to sign a new stimulus relief package before the election, unemployment rolls continue to surge: Benefits are being claimed at four times the rate they were before the pandemic hit.

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The current political context and outlook

The $2.2 trillion emergency relief bill that President Donald Trump signed in March reset some of the rules for unemployment benefits, expanding eligibility and ramping up payout amounts. The original CARES Act enhanced unemployment benefits but has expired, however, and Congress still doesn't have a plan for next steps. While you can still apply for unemployment benefits, the extra $600 a week won't be included.

Even though there are talks of plans nearly every day, Congress is set to leave until after the election with no plan in place. States can continue their own unemployment policies as they see fit, which isn't the same for everyone. Here's what unemployment looks like.

What is unemployment insurance?

If you lose your job, unemployment insurance is a guaranteed payout, usually weekly, for a set amount to tide you over until you find new work. Eligibility requirements and benefits vary widely from state to state; you can get all of the details about your state's specific unemployment benefits on the US Department of Labor's website. For example, qualified Florida residents can claim up to $275 for 12 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Prior to the passage of the CARES Act, unemployment benefits were designed as a temporary stopgap to help people who were out of work to pay for basic expenses like housing, food and utilities. If you were self-employed or owned a business, you would typically not qualify for regular unemployment insurance. That has since changed.

Who is eligible for unemployment benefits?

Normally, unemployment benefits are typically reserved for full-time employees who lose their jobs. With the expanded coverage, part-time and self-employed workers may now qualify. 

The CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to individuals who would not normally be eligible for unemployment benefits from the states, including gig workers, freelancers, independent contractors and small business owners whose income has been affected by the pandemic. For now, PUA funding is set to run through Dec. 31. 

You may also be eligible to collect unemployment benefits if you fall into one of these categories:

  • You or a family member have been infected by COVID-19 and cannot work.
  • You have been advised by a doctor to self-quarantine. 
  • Your workplace closed due to the coronavirus.
  • You're not working because you have to care for children or other family members who would otherwise attend school or another facility.
  • College students who worked a job last year (PDF) -- even a part-time one.  

How much money will I receive?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical US worker earned about $1,000 a week at the end of 2019. Weekly unemployment benefit payouts typically replace about 40 to 45% of that median paycheck amount -- but vary by state; California residents, for example, get about $450 a week. Unless there's another stimulus package, you're only set to receive what your state approves.

Read more: New national eviction moratorium for the rest of 2020: What you need to know  

How long will I receive unemployment benefits?

Most states' unemployment benefits cover 26 weeks; the CARES Act extended this period by 13 weeks, giving most people a total of 39 weeks of coverage. Florida residents, for example, who formerly received unemployment benefits for 12 weeks, are now covered for a total of 25 weeks. Note that if you had already exhausted all of your state-provided unemployment benefits, you could reapply for the federal program's additional 13 weeks. 

For now, it's unclear whether or for how long future legislation would expand this coverage period. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will expire on Dec. 31

What if I was furloughed?

In contrast to a layoff -- in which a job is permanently eliminated -- a furlough is closer to a temporary leave of absence. Furloughed workers sometimes continue to receive some benefits including health insurance. 

Unemployment benefits for furloughed employees vary from state to state. But the first stimulus bill provided expanded coverage so that even furloughed employees could receive unemployment benefits. And, unlike workers who were laid off, furloughed employees do not have to provide proof of having lost their job.

Who's not covered?

If you're working from home or on paid leave, you don't qualify for the updated unemployment benefits. And you are unlikely to be covered if you're technically able to work but would prefer not to due to fears about the coronavirus. But if you were required to quarantine due to potential exposure to the coronavirus, you are eligible. Frankly, the language in the bill is a little fuzzy; and, ultimately, it's up to individual states to determine whether you're eligible or not. The bottom line is, the only way to know for sure is to apply. 

Read more: Coronavirus hardship loans: What they are, how they work and how to get one

When can I apply?

Immediately. Before the stimulus package was passed, you had to wait at least a week to receive benefits, but many states have now waived the waiting period. 

How do I apply for unemployment insurance?

There's no federal system for unemployment benefits, which means you'll need to apply through your state's individual system. Find your state's program here.

Read more: You lost your job because of coronavirus. These resources can help