COVID-19 unemployment insurance

Updated as of April 10, 2020

The CARES Act—the economic relief bill signed into law on March 27, 2020—provides much-needed temporary support for U.S. workers impacted by COVID-19. It dedicates $250 billion to give workers more access to unemployment benefits during this public health emergency by:

  • Creating a temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
  • Expanding coverage to more workers, including self-employed, contractors, and furloughed workers.
  • Increasing by $600/week Americans’ unemployment benefits for the next 4 months.
  • Making available 13 additional weeks of unemployment for those who need it.
  • Waiving the normal one-week waiting period.
  • Supporting short-time, work share programs as an alternative to layoffs.

Are self-employed and independent contractors eligible? 

Yes. Self-employed and independent contractors, such as many relief veterinarians, are eligible for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. This also covers many other workers such those laid off from churches and religious institutions who may not be eligible under the state’s program.

What about furloughed workers?

Yes. States have policies in place to allow furloughed workers to receive unemployment benefits and part-time workers can receive partial benefits. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program also helps workers stay connected to their employer by allowing unemployment benefits for workers who have a job but are unable to work or telework due to COVID-19-related reasons and are not receiving paid leave through their employer.

What about workers who are not laid off, but have their hours reduced?

Individuals who are still working are generally not eligible for unemployment compensation (UC) benefits. However, the CARES Act makes a substantial federal investment in supporting Short-Time Compensation (STC) or “work sharing” programs, which allow employers to make an agreement with the state UC office to reduce hours, instead of laying people off, and then have workers receive partial UC benefits for their lost hours. Individual state policies may vary, but workers with reduced hours who were not part of STC programs would not typically receive UC.

How much do unemployed workers get?

Unemployment benefits across the country averaged $385 per week in February 2020 but vary significantly by state. Additional information about the provisions of state unemployment insurance laws can be found on the Department of Labor website. Generally, a person’s benefits replace about a third to half of their wages. The CARES Act provides an additional $600 per week on top of whatever a person would normally receive in their state—limited to the next four months (expires July 31, 2020). This will end up providing a higher than average wage replacement rate for low-wage workers.

Can individuals get more on unemployment than they got in their paycheck?

The additional $600 in weekly benefits is designed to keep as many workers as whole as possible through the emergency. Some may temporarily receive more benefit than their paycheck—though that number is very small compared to everyone receiving unemployment benefits. Of course, people receiving unemployment benefits do not receive health insurance, retirement or other important benefits that can be available at work. The temporary $600 is only available through July 31, 2020.

How long do unemployment benefits last?

It varies by state, but most states provide access to unemployment benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks. See state-by-state 2020 maximum weekly unemployment benefits. The CARES Act provides federal funding for an additional 13 weeks for those who need it. Funding for this expires December 31, 2020.

Are unemployment benefits taxable and do they count as income?

Yes. Unemployment benefits are taxable income and they generally count as income when determining eligibility for public assistance programs.

What does unemployment insurance look like in my state? 

To find out how to apply for unemployment in your state visit the Department of Labor (DOL) CareerOneStop website.

A state-by-state summary of how each state determines weekly unemployment benefits amounts can be found on the DOL website.

For information about how your state’s unemployment agency is responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency visit the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.