As states closed down and businesses shuttered because of COVID-19, record numbers of newly out-of-work people applied for unemployment insurance (UI) to help pay their bills. In the week ending March 28, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) announced that 6.6 million new benefit claims were filed, compared to 3.3 million the previous week.
But in the week ending Jan. 1, 2022, the DoL reported that 207,000 workers filed for unemployment benefits in their home states. And in December 2021 the jobless rate dropped to 3.9%—close to the pre-pandemic level of 3.5% in the fourth quarter of 2019. Here's a look back at how the government helped unemployed workers survive the first two years of the pandemic—plus basics on how unemployment works now.
- Unemployment insurance claims related to COVID-19 catapulted to 3.28 million in the week ending March 21, 2020.
- The CARES Act expanded unemployment insurance eligibility to gig and freelance workers and part-time workers who were affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
- In addition to receiving a percentage of their salary, unemployed workers who couldn't work because of COVID-19 were eligible to receive $600 a week added to their checks through July 31, 2020.
- Most pandemic-related benefits ended on September 6, 2021.
- Most states recommend applying for unemployment insurance online and following website updates for news.
Labor Department Guidance
In 2020 the Labor Department provided guidance to increase the flexibility states had in administering unemployment insurance. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion economic relief plan passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, expanded unemployment benefits to Americans who had been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. These provisions were extended again by two other laws passed by President Trump and President Joe Biden when he assumed office.
Under the COVID-19 relief package signed into law by President Trump in December 2020, for example, federal unemployment benefits, like Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), were extended for 11 weeks until March 14, 2021. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, signed into law on March 11, 2021 by President Biden, extended the availability of PUA, PEUC, and FPUC through September 6, 2021.
Unemployment Insurance in 2020 and 2021
The CARES Act boosted the benefit amount that people could get, extended benefits, and made unemployment insurance available for groups of people, such as independent contractors, who were otherwise not eligible for UI.
However, undocumented workers were excluded from CARES Act benefits, even those who filed income taxes, and anyone filing a tax return together with an undocumented immigrant was also excluded. That meant that in families where just one member files using an individual tax identification number (ITIN), the entire family was ineligible. Some states and localities stepped up to provide help to undocumented immigrants to fill the void. Austin, Minneapolis, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., for instance, set aside funds to give one-time aid payments to undocumented workers affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Benefits and provisions of the CARES Act were extended after the passing of both the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. There were several different programs, including:
- Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC)—Under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, unemployment benefits were supplemented by an additional $600 a week for four months. This applied to those who are eligible for benefits under the following two programs (PUA and PEUC). The supplement was reduced to $300 and extended twice, once by President Trump and then by President Biden. The FPUC expired on Sept. 6, 2021, though 26 states elected to end their enrollment in the program before this date.
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)—Under the CARES Act, freelancers and independent contractors, workers seeking part-time work, those without a substantial work history to qualify for state unemployment insurance benefits, and workers who otherwise wouldn't have qualified for benefits under state or federal law could file for unemployment insurance under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. To qualify, individuals had to self-certify that they were able to work, were available for work, and were unemployed, partially employed, unable, or unavailable to work because of one of numerous COVID-19-related scenarios. The PUA program expired on Sept. 6, 2021, under the American Rescue Plan Act.
- Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)—States provide benefits for up to 26 weeks (see the map above), but what if you exhaust your unemployment benefits?
Under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, you were eligible for an extra 13 weeks of UI under the CARES Act. However, you had to be "able to work, available to work, and actively seeking work." States were required to offer flexibility to applicants in meeting PEUC eligibility requirements related to "actively seeking work" if an applicant's ability to find work was affected by COVID-19.
That 13-week period was extended to 24 weeks when the CAA was signed in December 2020. President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan added an additional 29 weeks for a total of 53 weeks for the PEUC program. The PEUC program expired on Sept. 6, 2021.
How Unemployment Insurance Is Administered
The country's unemployment insurance system is run by the individual states, which generally set up their own eligibility criteria and benefits levels and pay the actual benefits. Still, it is overseen by the federal government, which pays administrative costs.
Ordinarily, most states provide up to 26 weeks of benefits to unemployed workers to replace roughly half of their previous wages, up to a maximum benefit amount.
The amount of unemployment benefits varies widely by state. The weekly minimums available start at $5 in Hawaii and go up to $188 in Washington; the maximums range from $235 in Mississippi to $823 in Massachusetts.
How to Apply for Unemployment Insurance
To apply for UI, you must follow your state's guidelines, which you can link to via the DOL website, CareerOneStop. Depending on the state, you can file a claim in person, online, or over the phone. When you file a claim, you must provide your Social Security number, contact information, and details about your former employment.
While every state has its own eligibility rules, there are a few universal steps to take to file for unemployment insurance, no matter where you reside. Before you apply, collect all the appropriate paperwork. Be prepared to file your address, telephone number, and your Social Security number. You will also need to provide the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and your employers' identification numbers (EIN) from the past 18 months. You need to provide your dates of employment and your earnings (from W-2s and pay stubs) for the past 18 months.
When you have all the necessary information, you can apply online for your benefits. You will have to apply in the state in which you work, not the state where you live. So if you work in New York but live in New Jersey, you will need to file for unemployment benefits in New York State.
Warning: If You Are Offered Your Old Job Back
During the period when federal pandemic aid was provided, the extra payments meant many workers made more money while on unemployment than they did in their jobs. There was speculation that this state of affairs would encourage employers to lay off workers or that it would disincentivize workers from returning to their jobs as businesses re-opened after lockdowns. However, research has found neither of these speculations to be true.
Businesses that received loan forgiveness under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) have been pushing for an answer to whether they would lose loan forgiveness if laid-off employees refused to return when offered their old jobs back. The Treasury Department issued an FAQ saying this would not happen if they make a good-faith, written offer to rehire a laid-off employee (same hours, same wages) and have documented evidence of being turned down by the employee.
But here's what that FAQ also said: "Employees and employers should be aware that employees who reject offers of re-employment may forfeit eligibility for continued unemployment compensation." In other words: Refuse to go back, and you could lose your unemployment insurance.
Is the Federal Government Still Providing Workers With Extra Pandemic Unemployment Assistance?
No. All of the pandemic assistance programs for workers under the various laws enacted by Presidents Trump and Biden have expired. Initially, the CARES Act increased the benefit amount that people could get, extended the time period for benefits, and made unemployment insurance available for groups of people who were otherwise not eligible for UI. The Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act extended these benefits, but all of them ended in early September 2021.
How Many Weeks of Unemployment Can Someone Get?
The individual states determine how many weeks an individual is eligible for, but the general maximum is 26 weeks. The following states currently offer less than 26 weeks: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina. And two states provide more: Massachusetts gives up to 30 weeks, and Montana, up to 28 weeks.
Can You Collect Unemployment Insurance If You Work Part-Time?
Yes, it's possible to work part-time and still collect unemployment, but it depends on the state where you live and on your situation. Most states provide benefits to individuals who, through no fault of their own, have their hours reduced—say, if a company is sold or restructured. And many will provide UI to those who lost a job and have taken on one or more part-time jobs to replace their lost income. Check with your state's department of labor to find out its rules.