Nearly 33.5 million Americans have lost their jobs and applied for unemployment benefits in the past 7 weeks — a stunning record high that reflects the near-complete shutdown of the U.S. economy.
On Friday, the government said the U.S. unemployment rate hit 14.7% in April, the highest rate since the Great Depression. As recently as February, the unemployment rate was just 3.5%, a 50-year low.
For those who have lost jobs, it’s a frightening time. Bills need to be paid. Do they qualify for unemployment benefits? How fast will the money arrive?
Here are some questions and answers:
HOW CAN I GET UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS?
Workers who have lost their jobs or income through no fault of their own should immediately file a claim for unemployment aid through their state labor departments. The benefit program is administered by state agencies. Most states are encouraging people to request benefits online or, if necessary, over the phone.
I’VE HEARD THE SYSTEM IS OVERWHELMED BY REQUESTS.
Yes, several state websites initially crashed and phones lines were jammed as agencies faced a surge of applicants and new eligibility rules.
Things have improved some as states have brought on extra workers and expanded hours to accept calls. The pressure has also eased as more people make their way through the system. However, there may still be a wait.
All the same, people who have lost jobs or whose income has been hurt by coronavirus should keep trying. It does take time to process a claim, potentially several weeks, but benefit payments are retroactive: Eligible workers will receive benefits from the date they lost their jobs, regardless of when they file.
HOW CAN I MAKE THE PROCESS OPERATE MORE SMOOTHLY?
Have all your information ready. This includes contact information for all your employers from the past 18 months, your Social Security number and documentation of your income, such as from tax forms or pay stubs.
HOW LARGE ARE THE UNEMPLOYMENT AID CHECKS?
They vary sharply by state. Mississippi provides the lowest amount, $235 a week. Massachusetts pays $823 a week, the highest.
I HEARD THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS PROVIDING AN EXTRA $600 A WEEK.
Yes. After problems with state computer systems had slowed the distribution of federal benefits for many laid-off workers, all 50 states are now paying the $600 extra weekly benefit that the federal government included in a relief package enacted in late March.
I’M SELF-EMPLOYED. WILL I QUALIFY?
Yes, that is one of the changes made by the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package signed into law by President Donald Trump. If you are self-employed, a contractor or a gig worker, you are now eligible to claim unemployment benefits.