How to File for Unemployment If You’re Out of Work Because of Coronavirus

A business in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., displays a closed sign due to coronavirus on the front door of their business.
A sign on the front door of Bangkok 9 Thai and Sushi in St. Petersburg, Fla., informs customers that the restaurant is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment claims surged to 6.6 million in the last week of March. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Last week, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” — the “CARES Act.” The law provides a path to financial relief for people and businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Yes, that’s the one that includes the $1,200 stimulus check you’ve probably heard about.

It also includes assistance for small businesses, a temporary break in the cost of 401(k) withdrawals, support for health care providers — and funds to bolster state unemployment benefits.

What’s New About Unemployment Benefits Under the CARES Act?

Under normal circumstances, states pay for unemployment benefits they issue. The CARES Act includes funding from the federal government to increase unemployment benefits and extend them to more people. These temporary changes include:

  • Broader eligibility. If you’re a freelancers, gig worker or part-timer with a limited work history, you generally can’t get unemployment assistance. Under the new law, you’re eligible — as long as you would be able to work in the absence of the pandemic.
  • An extra $600 per week. State benefit maximums range from $213 to $546. The act includes Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which means you could get an additional $600 per week on top of your state’s max. (FPUC expires July 31.)
  • Three extra months of payments. Most states let you draw benefits for up to 26 weeks, but some are as low as 12 weeks. The bill extends the duration of benefits by up to 13 weeks on top of your state’s maximum duration, up to a total duration of 39 weeks (about nine months).
  • Getting paid sooner. The bill offers assistance to states that waive the typical one-week waiting period before recipients can collect unemployment pay, incentivizing states to do so. Already, 32 states have made moves to waive their waiting period.
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Coronavirus Unemployment Filing Details

States administer unemployment insurance, so the filing process is unique to each state.

You can find your state’s unemployment website and application information, including COVID-19 info pages, through the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop unemployment benefits page.

Check your state’s website for unique eligibility requirements, how to file a claim and updates on coronavirus-related changes.

Are You Eligible?

States set their own requirements for unemployment benefit eligibility, but the CARES Act expands eligibility quite a bit.

Typically, to be eligible for unemployment benefits, you must:

  • Have lost work through no fault of your own. Usually this means you were laid off, furloughed or experienced reduced hours because work isn’t available. Without the CARES Act provisions, this requirement makes it tough for freelancers and self-employed workers to qualify.
  • Meet work and wage requirements. States set minimums for wages earned and time worked during a set period (generally the past year). The CARES Act makes it easier for low-wage and part-time workers to qualify.

The legislation also extends eligibility to workers who quit their job for coronavirus-related reasons, like contracting the virus or caring for someone who’s being treated or recovering.

You’re likely ineligible for benefits if you have the option to work from home or receive paid leave.

In normal times, many states require recipients to provide proof they’re looking for work — through job applications, networking or interviews, for example — each week or so to claim a payment. Most have waived this requirement for coronavirus-related claims.

To prove you’re unable to work because of the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll simply have to submit a self-certification. The legislation doesn’t specify requirements to self-certify, so it’s up to your discretion.

How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

Generally, you should file a claim for benefits in the state where you worked, even if you’ve moved since becoming unemployed.

Whether you believe you’re traditionally eligible or may be eligible under the CARES Act:

  1. Start by applying for benefits with your state online. 
  2. If you’re found not eligible for regular benefits, apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (the expanded federal benefits), also through your state’s online application.

The process and application are different for each state, but here’s an example from the New York State Department of Labor of what coronavirus unemployment filing looks like for New Yorkers.

When you file, you’ll have to provide information about your recent (approximately the past year) employment history, potentially including:

  • Former employers’ addresses.
  • Dates of employment.
  • Reasons for terminating employment (e.g. quit, lay off, furlough).

In states with work search requirements in effect, you’ll also have to provide information about your job search each week or two to claim benefits. This could include things like names and contact information for companies or people with whom you network or put in an application.

What to Expect After You File

The filing website should give you further instructions after you file a claim. Keep an eye out in case you receive an email, phone call or notification within your account on the website asking for more information. The quicker your response, the more quickly you can receive benefits.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Document your attempts to file. Grab screenshots and save emails related to your application in case you run into technical issues.
  • In states with a waiting period in effect, you can receive your first payment one week after becoming eligible. If it’s waived, you can receive payment immediately.
  • Expect delays. Nearly every state is seeing a wild increase in unemployment claims due to the coronavirus — 3.2 million claims were filed nationwide in the week after the CDC issued social distancing guidance, an increase of 3 million over the previous week.  Your state’s agency may be overwhelmed and take longer than usual to process your claim. 
  • Delays don’t mean less money. If the filing process takes a while, your eligibility — and first payment — date stays the same, and you can get prorated benefits once everything is sorted out.
  • Payment comes through direct deposit, paper check or debit card. If you have a bank account where you can receive direct deposit, that option will probably get money in your pocket fastest.

While you wait for unemployment funds to hit your bank account, you might have these options for relief from your unavoidable expenses:

You can also peruse our complete list of coronavirus coverage, updated daily, for additional ways to get financial relief and make extra money from home.

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media.