More than 26 million Americans have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis, as hundreds of thousands of businesses have been forced to close or cut back on their hours and operations. And as the nation continues to shelter in place and practice social distancing, the slowdown or suspension of so many aspects of everyday life has caused a massive reduction of economic activity and consumer spending.
As a result, millions of employees have had their hours cut, been laid off or furloughed. Entire industries like restaurants, retail, hospitality, nightlife and live entertainment have been upended. Congress has passed an aggressive program of expanded unemployment benefits to help keep money flowing to people while the economy is paused. But the newly unemployed are facing widespread confusion and inconsistency from America’s overwhelmed systems.
How are people dealing with the realities of filing for unemployment and navigating the system of unemployment benefits during COVID-19? Just as in every other crisis, Americans are approaching this situation with adaptability, resilience and hope.
From New York to Ohio to California, livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Here are three stories, followed by tips you can use to navigate filing for unemployment.
Dancer, Singer, Nightlife Maven: miss al boogie
Allyson Lynch is a dancer, actor and singer/songwriter based in New York City who is known in the dance scene by her artist name of miss al boogie. A year ago, Allyson quit her former full-time job to continue building her own business as a freelance creative, dancer, instructor and performer. She’s been doing creative gigs and teaching dance classes all over New York, and recently became a member of SAG-AFTRA after being cast for an appearance in the acclaimed Amazon Prime Video series, Hunters.
But when the pandemic hit, Allyson’s business as a creative gig worker took a hit, too. So many of the places and things that people like Allyson need for making a living—dance studios, film sets, real-life interaction—are currently shut down.
Fortunately, because of the recently expanded unemployment benefits that were passed by Congress as part of the coronavirus relief package, freelancers and gig workers like Allyson are now able to apply for unemployment. But she says the process has not been easy.
“I feel like the unemployment system really doesn’t understand gig work,” Allyson says. “I have been working in New York for years, and I had to apply for unemployment once before back in 2014, so I already had an account in the system. But now that I’m a full-time freelancer, I feel like the system is set up as if it assumes that everyone has just one employer or place of work.”
When Allyson first applied for unemployment benefits, she had to select an option describing her previous employer. That’s a complicated question to answer if you’re a freelancer who might work on dozens of projects per year.
“Even if you freelance or have multiple part-time jobs with W-2 income, when you go to the website to apply for benefits, the system is trying to make you choose ‘what’s your job’ and makes you choose one place of work,” Allyson says. “There’s no easy way to just get recognized as a freelancer in the unemployment system. Even in New York! Where there are lots of creative jobs and lots of people working as freelancers.”
Allyson is not sure yet how much money she will receive from her unemployment benefits; with the expanded benefits from the stimulus bill, she thinks she might get a combined total of $900 per week once all the money starts coming in. She also would like to see more clarity from the government on what the expectations and eligibility requirements for drawing unemployment are.
“Before the pandemic, you could not collect unemployment unless you were actively seeking work,” Allyson says. “So I had some confusion about that, like, am I supposed to be looking for a job right now? I’ve claimed weekly benefits twice and it was doing a little psychological number on me. Like, how can we look for work if we’re not allowed to leave home?”
Fortunately, one of the provisions of the coronavirus relief package is that recipients of unemployment benefits do not have to be actively seeking work. So if you’re unemployed right now, you don’t have to worry about the usual process of demonstrating to the government that you’re trying to find a new job. If you’re asked to stay home, you can do so.
Despite the challenges of being a freelancer in a system designed for employees, Allyson is grateful for the new unemployment benefits. “If it wasn’t for this stimulus bill, it might have been hard for me to qualify,” Allyson says. “And I’ve actually been grateful to be able to be home and use my time in a different, constructive way.”
“I’m setting intentions and demarcations for what kinds of dance skills I want to work on. I’m working on my music and writing songs. I’m teaching dance classes on Instagram Live and it’s been a great way to connect with people,” says Allyson. “And I don’t want to sound like I’m in ‘hustle mode’ all the time. Sometimes I have hard days, and sad days, and days where I take a lot of naps.”
Although she’s found ways to stay active during this stressful time, Allyson misses her usual work routine, her friends and her social life as an avid dancer and clubgoer. She’s also worried for her friends’ health and safety, in what has been the epicenter of America’s coronavirus crisis.
“I know people who are sick with it, I know people who have died of it,” Allyson says. “This is not going to be easy. We’ve lost so many wonderful people and we’re going to lose more. My biggest priority is to not get sick. Everything else is secondary.”
- If you are a gig worker, freelancer, self-employed individual or independent contractor, you now are likely to be eligible for unemployment benefits that you might not have been able to receive before.
- The CARES Act has provisions providing for expanded unemployment benefits of up to $600 per week of additional payment for a period of up to four months.
- You do not have to be actively looking for work in order to receive unemployment benefits; the government has changed the requirements due to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.
Paul Horan: Retail Veteran
Paul Horan works as a shoe salesman at a high-end retailer in Cleveland. For the past eight years he’s been selling shoes on commission, and he’s made a decent living. But the coronavirus crisis has forced his employer to shut down for in-store shopping, and, on March 16, Paul filed for unemployment.
Paul says that his employer tried their best to manage the situation and help their employees. The company gave everyone three weeks of special “store closure pay,” created an employee relief fund to help people who were in dire straits or on the verge of eviction and the company is keeping everyone on their health insurance through the end of May. Paul hasn’t technically been “fired,” but his hours have been cut to zero.
“They furloughed some employees, but some of us are just classified as ‘unscheduled’ and I don’t fully know what that means,” Paul says. “If everyone was being treated the same, I suppose you wouldn’t have two designations. I wonder if some of us are at more risk of being laid off. My co-workers are coming to the realization that this isn’t gonna be over in a month or two.”
Even aside from the financial concerns of being out of work, Paul has a health issue that makes him more vulnerable to the virus. So he cannot take the risk of going in to work, even if his store were still open for business. He worries about what might happen if the economic crisis continues, and he loses his health insurance coverage at the end of May.
“My company was offering to have us come in and keep working and do web fulfillment for online orders, but the pay was only $12 an hour,” Paul says. “I usually make more than that. When we make commissions, we might be making $25 or $28 an hour.”
Rather than take the risk of going to work and catching the coronavirus, Paul filed for unemployment. Like so many other newly jobless people during a time of unprecedented demand on the unemployment systems, he found the system to be unpredictable and clunky.
“I was still working when I filed for unemployment, because they told us we could cite reduction of hours as a reason to claim unemployment, instead of being laid off,” Paul said. “It took three to four weeks to get my first unemployment claim processed, and so much depends on which processing center it gets routed to. I know people who are laid off, but who haven’t filed yet. My sister filed on the same day as me, but her claim is still pending. Maybe she had to reopen and add more information.”
With so many changes happening so fast from the state and federal levels, the system in Ohio and most other states appears to be overwhelmed. Paul was able to navigate through the confusion, and is currently receiving a weekly unemployment check of about $430 per week, which is close to the Ohio maximum benefit after taxes are taken out. He has not yet started to receive the additional $600 a week in expanded benefits from the stimulus package, but he thinks he will qualify for that amount, too.
“If I can eventually get to $1,000 a week of benefits, that would be comfortable, but it might only last through the end of July,” Paul says. “And, in a way, I’m lucky because of where I live. Every state does unemployment differently. Here in Ohio, our max benefit is $480 a week. That’s OK but long-term it’s not gonna help. Florida is only like $275 a week.”
And even with the maximum level of unemployment benefits, Paul’s future feels painfully uncertain.
“I don’t feel secure, and I’m a little worried,” Paul says. “I’ve been living paycheck to paycheck. I had nothing in savings. I was waiting on state and federal tax refunds to give me some cash in the bank. For now, I’m trying to not spend. I’m only spending money on rent, bills and food, and that’s it.”
Paul would like to go back to work, but he’s not sure if or when his store will reopen, or if he’ll feel safe going to work anytime soon. “If the U.S. can get a widespread COVID-19 testing system set up, to the point where we know who has the virus and who doesn’t, to the point where I can feel safe going to work? Then I would be totally happy to get back to work,” Paul says. “But even if we had widespread testing tomorrow, I’m not sure how long it will take for people to feel comfortable shopping again.”
Paul also worries that the coronavirus crisis could accelerate the trend of in-store retail going away, as more people shop online. “My income as a shoe salesman depends, literally, on foot traffic,” Paul says. “We rely upon the in-store customer service experience. If people stop going to stores because they’re afraid of getting sick, I can’t do what I do for a living anymore. Even if I can go back to work in June or July or August, if I’m only making $600 a week, that’s barely enough to pay my bills.”
- Apply for unemployment as soon as you become eligible. If your work hours have been cut, or if you have been laid off or furloughed from your job, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits.
- Talk with your employer and check with your state unemployment system’s website for more details about your specific state’s application requirements and how much money you can expect to receive from unemployment benefits.
- If you are concerned about losing your employer-sponsored health insurance coverage, keep in mind that if you lose your job-based coverage, this is considered a qualifying life event that gives you the right to obtain new health insurance, even if it’s outside of the usual annual enrollment period. If you lose your health insurance because of a layoff, or if your employer stops providing health insurance, you will be able to apply for new health insurance coverage, including subsidized and lower cost premiums, at HealthCare.gov.
Austin: Coffee Repair Technician, Youth Basketball Coach
Austin, who asked that we not use his last name because he didn’t want to bring unwanted attention to his employers, lives in Los Angeles. Both of his sources of income have been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
His day job and primary income is as a technician for a company that repairs and services commercial-grade coffee and espresso machines for the restaurant industry; the restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the recent shutdown. Although he’s not been laid off and is still classified as “on call,” his employer has had to cut his work hours significantly.
In addition to his work as a coffee repair technician, Austin makes music as a hip-hop artist and coaches youth basketball for a travel team. His income as a basketball coach has also been interrupted by the economic shutdown.
“This last year has been a tornado, even before the pandemic,” Austin says. “Last May, the company I worked for got bought by a big corporation. They told us our jobs were safe. It turns out, that was a lie. We all got laid off. For the next six months of 2019, I was on unemployment. I applied for hundreds of jobs, and then I finally got hired by my current employer. I have only been at this job for three months. Then this pandemic happened, and wiped out my new source of income.”
Austin says that even as someone who is experienced with navigating the unemployment system during “normal” times, he has found the current situation to be complex and frustrating. But the good news is: California appears to already be set up to offer the newly expanded unemployment benefits that were approved as part of the CARES Act.
“The unemployment portal is still the same as it was last year, but it does say you can get the newly approved $600 a week [through July], along with the $450 max weekly benefit that they regularly offer,” Austin says. “But California is supposedly also setting up a new separate system and presumably a new website for the $600 per week. It’s all kind of confusing.”
Austin filed for unemployment a week ago, now that his hours have been cut, but, because he was already on unemployment for so much of 2019, he’s not sure how much money he’ll qualify for or when the benefits might arrive.
“I haven’t seen a link or tab on the state website where I can open a new claim,” Austin says. “I asked about it via email, and they told me that because I was already on unemployment for most of 2019, there’s no option for me to file a new claim, but I can reopen a claim. So I did that, and I’m hoping that they will extend my 2019 unemployment claim and allot me more money for 2020.”
Austin says that even before the pandemic, it was often difficult to get through to the unemployment system by phone, with multiple confusing automated phone menus.
“I haven’t been able to get through to the unemployment system via phone, because they’re just flooded,” Austin says. “Their phone system leads to dead ends every single time and hangs up on you. When you call unemployment, there are two distinct voices: There’s a one-and-a-half minute message, talking about how the call volume is too high, and then it hangs up on you. And then there’s another that makes you navigate multiple menus, and you think you’re getting where you’re going, and then it hangs up on you. It’s like an ouroboros of not being able to get in touch with people.”
Austin worries for the future of the restaurant industry that his company serves. “One of the things we’ve been doing at my job lately is helping restaurants shut down that have had to go out of business because of this crisis, and it’s heartbreaking,” Austin says. “Here in L.A., we’re seeing some classic restaurants go out of business that have been open since the 1930s. What does that do to people? Restaurants have memories. So many of people’s life events and celebrations happen at restaurants.”
Austin also is concerned for the mental health impacts of mass unemployment. “When I was on unemployment for six months, my self-worth was hit hard,” Austin says. “It’s not fun to not have a job. It’s hard. You have to keep navigating this system. Even if you’re technically guaranteed to get enough benefits to pay your bills, it’s not fun or inspiring to be sitting at home living on government money. People take pride in doing work. People don’t want to be sitting around—it’s not good for your mind.”
Most of all, Austin misses coaching his basketball team: “I really, really miss basketball. I miss helping my kids, I miss all those little moments as a team, all those high fives and hugs, cheering ’em on. You realize how much those interactions mean to you. I’m not gonna take that for granted again.”
- State unemployment systems have been overwhelmed by the surge of demand from millions of newly laid off people. But keep trying to call and/or applying online. States like California are working to implement new tools and systems to accommodate the need.
- If you have been recently unemployed, or just recently started a new job, you may still be able to qualify for the expanded unemployment benefits from the coronavirus relief package. The rules and requirements are less strict than they used to be.
- Even if you have uncertainty about how much money you may qualify for, go ahead and apply for unemployment as soon as you can. Getting the process started early can help you get paid faster.
Unemployment Filing Tips
If you need to file for unemployment, here are a few tips based on Allyson, Paul and Austin’s experiences:
- Unemployment benefits vary by state. Go to your state’s unemployment office website to find eligibility and coverage details and to see what the process is to file a claim.
- Apply as soon as possible. As soon as you get laid off or have your hours cut, try to apply for unemployment as early as you are eligible. This can get you into the system and help get money into your bank account faster. You shouldn’t feel bad about filing for unemployment: Millions and millions of people are suddenly in this situation because of the pandemic, not because they’re bad employees or undeserving of help. And the unemployment benefits are funds that you helped pay for with your payroll taxes.
- Be prepared to wait. People all over the U.S. are filing for unemployment in massive numbers right now, and the unemployment systems are being overwhelmed. You may want to try applying online at off-peak hours, or calling in on a designated day. For example, some states are asking applicants to apply for unemployment on staggered days, based on the first letter of their last names.
- You may receive more money than you expect. Depending on your current income and your state, you could end up receiving more money from unemployment than you earned working at your job. For up to four months, the provisions of the CARES Act provide an additional $600 per week benefit.
- Save some money for the tax man. Unemployment benefits are subject to federal income tax. So you may want to set aside some of the funds, make estimated tax payments or elect to have 10% of your unemployment payment withheld for federal taxes.
America has never seen so many people thrown into unemployment so fast. Whatever your situation, be persistent in applying for the benefits you deserve, and try to stay safe, sane and healthy during this challenging time.