Friday, June 05, 2020

Coronavirus unemployment guide: What to do if you get laid off or furloughed

Apr 04. 2020
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By  The Washington Post · Jacob Bogage · BUSINESS, CAREER-WORKPLACE 

The novel coronavirus has leveled the American economy and has businesses of all sizes tightening their belts. Much of that pain is getting passed on to workers as businesses are forced to close because of public health orders or cut costs through layoffs and furloughs. Here's everything you need to know if you've lost your job or been furloughed because of the spread of covid-19.

- How many people are getting laid off and furloughed?

More than 10 million Americans applied for jobless benefits in March, though experts say the real number of unemployed is higher because many people haven't been able to apply for assistance in their states. Phone lines have been so busy that many people have not been able to get through. And self-employed and gig workers, such as barbers and hairstylists, were not eligible to apply until the end of March, when the federal $2.2 trillion relief package kicked in.

And the worst may be yet to come. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis forecasts that 47 million Americans could lose their jobs because of the coronavirus, which would push the unemployment rate above 25 percent - a level not seen since the Great Depression. Most economists don't think it will get that high, but they still anticipate the highest unemployment in decades. Investment bank Goldman Sachs anticipates 15 percent, before a swift comeback.

The worst job losses so far have come in blue-collar and service sectors, including food service, transportation, retail work and manufacturing. But white-collar layoffs and furloughs are becoming more rapid by the day. Job cuts are ticking up for workers in education, entertainment, management and even health services, according to the Labor Department.

- Am I eligible for unemployment insurance?

If you lost your job or were furloughed because of the coronavirus, or if the company you work for is permanently or temporarily shut down because of it, you qualify for weekly unemployment payments from the state in which you worked.

The $2.2 trillion rescue package known as the CARES Act opened the door for gig workers, freelancers and the self-employed to qualify for unemployment benefits.

You can make an unemployment claim online, over the phone or in person. The payout is based on how much you earned and aims to replace about half of your previous income. It also varies by state: In Mississippi, which pays the least among the 50 states, the average benefit in February was $215 a week; in Massachusetts, which pays the most, it was $550, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

States also have certain requirements and conditions about who can collect unemployment benefits. Texas and Florida, for example, require recipients to be actively searching for work while they collect payments. Pennsylvania requires beneficiaries to register for employment-search services and mandates they "not refuse work when offered without good cause."

You also have to meet certain wage and job duration benchmarks; you basically have to prove you were doing meaningful work before you became unemployed. Those requirements vary by state, but generally require having worked consecutive quarters and collecting a paycheck for a certain amount of time during those quarters.

(You can learn more about your state's requirements here at the Department of Labor's "Career One Stop" platform.)

The CARES Act also provides emergency money to states to fund another $600 a week in payments - on top of regular weekly payments - from the time a worker lost his or her job until July 31. It also funds an additional 13 weeks of payments from states, which typically cap unemployment benefits between 12 and 30 weeks. (Here's a map which shows how many weeks of unemployment your state offers.) In other words, if the economy remains sour for so long that jobs aren't available past the time your state would normally cut off benefits, there's money from the federal government that will keep assistance flowing.

- Is there other help coming?

That $2.2 trillion relief package will provide one-time $1,200 payments to adults making as much as $75,000, and $2,400 payments to married couples making less than $150,000 combined. Parents will also receive $500 for each dependent child.

If you're single and make more than $75,000, but less than $99,000, you'll get a smaller check, according to the IRS. The same goes for couples earning more than $150,000 but less than $198,000.

How you get this payment is a bit more complicated. Though the federal government pushed the tax-filing deadline from April 15 to July 15, the IRS still recommends filing your taxes soon. If the agency doesn't have your 2019 return, it will use your 2018 return to calculate your relief payment.

Those who set up direct deposit on their tax forms will get payments sooner, the IRS said. For those who don't, or who file their taxes by mail instead of electronically, the Treasury Department plans to set up an online portal so people can provide their banking information. If you don't have a bank account, relief checks could take longer to arrive through the mail.

People who collect Social Security and do not file a tax return will automatically get a one-time $1,200 payment, the Treasury Department said.

The Agriculture Department and many state and local governments have made it easier for residents to get food assistance during the coronavirus crisis. The federal government boosted the amount of money for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The program used to be known as "food stamps."

(You can apply for SNAP through your home state. Here's more information from the Agriculture Department.)

Many school districts are also providing meals for children and families that parents can pick up and take home. Check with your local jurisdiction about where and when these programs are available.

- What happens to my health insurance?

If you're furloughed, you likely will hold on to your health insurance. Check with your employer about how you'll make contributions while going without a paycheck.

If you've been laid off, your benefits usually end when you leave your job, which leaves you with two main options. You can keep your employer's plan for up to three years with a federal program called COBRA, but you have to pay for premiums yourself. (Learn more about COBRA here.)

For most people, the cheaper option is purchasing insurance through the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Since you've lost your job, you may get a hefty government subsidy that will make a policy purchased through Healthcare.gov or your state's health insurance marketplace more affordable. While you're signing up, the online registration portal will also tell you whether you qualify for Medicaid or if children in your household qualify for the Children's Health Insurance Plan. (Learn more about Healthcare.gov policies here.)

- What should I do if I've been laid off or furloughed?

Apply for unemployment insurance benefits right away. The CARES Act provides a bunch of money for states to pay out folks who lose their jobs or get furloughed. 

Next, experts say, assess your financial situation. Do you have money saved? Do you have any other sources of income? Take that all into account and make a new monthly budget. Use it as an opportunity to find out what expenses you can do without. Maybe you don't need a paid subscription to a music streaming service. Maybe you can cancel a gym membership.

"You may see people making jokes about engaging in online retail therapy to deal with the boredom, but don't buy into that," said Kelley Long, a member of the financial education advocates committee at the American Institute of CPAs. "This is the time to brag about your frugality and prove to yourself how little you truly need to live on in."

If you have a 401(k) retirement account and are younger than 59½, you can withdraw as much as $100,000 without incurring the 10 percent penalty, which has been temporarily waived under the CARES Act. You'll still be on the hook for taxes, though.

Finally, start dusting off your resume. It's never too early to start looking for your next job, said David M. Smith, professor of economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Even though businesses in your field may not be hiring during the coronavirus crisis, you'll be better off when jobs do start appearing for having prepared for those openings.

"Use the time you have to upskill and prepare for when the country is open for business again," he said. "Set aside adequate time for this. Make it your 'job' to prepare yourself for your next position."

- How should I pay my bills if I don't have a job?

Before you do anything else, see if there's any relief available for some of your bills.

If you have a mortgage, federal officials have imposed a nationwide halt to foreclosures and evictions for more than 30 million Americans with home loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration or two government-controlled companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But close to 5 million homeowners with loans valued at $3.7 trillion are not covered by federal moratoriums, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry research group. Some states, including California and New York, have paused foreclosure and eviction that would also apply to those borrowers. In other states, homeowners may have to negotiate arrangements with their mortgage provider. Regulators are encouraging banks and other mortgage providers to simply extend the life of the mortgage to make up for any missed payments brought on by joblessness.

For renters, the CARES Act in most cases forbids landlords from evicting tenants for 120 days on properties secured by government-backed mortgages (though renters' credit scores could get dinged if their landlord reports them for non-payment). But that leaves 40 million renters without protection. Some municipalities, including Los Angeles, have passed laws temporarily banning evictions. Others, and some nonprofits, have launched rental assistance funds for residents struggling to make payments.

If your landlord is an individual, rather than a management company, contact them personally to tell them you're struggling financially, said Long, from the American Institute of CPAs, and ask for flexibility with how much you'll pay per month until you get back on your feet.

"Call every single one of your bills and ask them what they have to offer people who are experiencing a temporary reduction in income," she said. "Take notes and ask about any fees, additional interest, and whether they report any postponed payments to credit bureaus."

The new law also automatically suspends payments for six months for the 42 million Americans holding $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt.

- Is there anywhere else I can get work?

You may not be able to get work similar to your old job. So many firms are cutting jobs and freezing hiring. But there are lots of companies hiring in "essential" fields, including grocery and drugstores, order fulfillment and delivery drivers.

Walmart is hiring 150,000 new employees around the country and has sped its normally two-week hiring process down to 24 hours in some cases. Amazon is hiring 100,00 new workers to manage a surge in demand. CVS wants to add 50,000 more jobs. Pizza chain Domino's is hiring 10,000 workers.

There are also opportunities to work as a freelancer or independent contractor. Uber is trying to recruit drivers to its Eats food delivery platform. With folks cloistered at home, there could be some money in delivering for other platforms such as Grubhub or DoorDash.

- Will I get my job back when this is over?

Well, there's a number of factors at play here. The first is: When will this pandemic truly be "over"? Some health experts' estimates say the United States will see the worst of covid-19 (the most new infections and fatalities) by mid-April, and society could start opening up again by June or July.

Others have more dire predictions and worry that a) the United States could see a resurgence of infections, and b) that the virus could return in the fall and winter.

The longer the virus drags out, the worse it will be for businesses. And the longer businesses stay closed, the worse it will be for workers who want to reclaim their old jobs when things get back to normal. That said, many of the businesses that have laid off or furloughed workers have reported to state and local government officials that the cuts are temporary, according to the Labor Department, so business owners themselves at least plan on rehiring.

Another factor is the pace of the economy's rebound, and experts have competing predictions of what might happen.

Goldman Sachs sees the economy contracting as much as 34 percent over April, May and June, but springing back to life with 19 percent growth in July, August and September, which would be the market's best ever turnaround. Others see things going a bit slower. Chris Rupkey, the chief financial economist at Japanese financial services giant MUFG, said the economy is headed toward a depression rather than a recession.

"If (gross domestic product) falls 15 percent in the second quarter and then rises back 8 percent in the third quarter," he said, "economic activity remains at a permanently lower level and does not need the same number of workers. Wishing and hoping it wasn't true. It's a game of musical chairs and there won't be as many seats at the table once we get on the other side of this pandemic."

 

 

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