Filing for unemployment benefits? Read this first

Unemployment benefits are becoming a financial lifeline for millions of Americans after their employers shut their doors to help stem the spread of the coron...

Posted: Apr 2, 2020 6:42 AM
Updated: Apr 2, 2020 10:15 AM

Unemployment benefits are becoming a financial lifeline for millions of Americans after their employers shut their doors to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The growing tsunami of layoffs has overwhelmed state unemployment systems as a record number of workers try to apply for benefits. The situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon.

The bottleneck comes as Congress passed a historic expansion of jobless benefits -- but applicants have to be able to file their first claims before the checks can start coming.

The situation is so bad that governors have begun apologizing to frustrated people who can't file claims and have to wait longer for their money.

'Unemployment benefits are extremely essential to support workers who are trying to make ends meet and stay connected to the labor market,' said Kali Grant, senior policy analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality.

Here's how unemployment benefits work:

The rules vary by state, but typically employees have to have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, have a minimum level of prior earnings from recent employment, be ready to take new positions immediately and be actively seeking work. States can now waive the latter two requirements since hundreds of millions of Americans are staying at home, and many states have closed nonessential businesses.

Just who is eligible for unemployment benefits also varies by state. Not all part-time workers qualify. And independent contractors and the self-employed typically don't either, though Congress has created a pandemic unemployment assistance program that temporarily covers them.

How much you'll receive depends on your recent earnings and state in which you live, said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Benefits range from about $200 to $550 a week, on average, depending on the state, and typically replace about 40% of one's wages. But Congress just gave those weekly checks a big boost. (See more below.)

It will likely take longer to file your initial claim and have it approved because of the crush of applications, but once that's done, your first payment typically arrives in your bank account in two or three weeks via direct deposit. You'll no longer have to wait a week for benefits to start, thanks to Congress.

If you are found ineligible, you can appeal, though that process likely will also take longer these days.

Here's what Congress just changed:

In its recent stimulus package, Congress made several unprecedented changes to the unemployment insurance program.

Jobless workers will soon get an extra $600 a week on top of their state benefits, for up to four months. That will significantly boost people's payments.

Lawmakers also added up to 13 weeks of extended benefits, on top of state programs, which vary between up to 12 and 28 weeks.

Plus, the new pandemic unemployment assistance program expands eligibility to those who are unemployed, partially unemployed or unable to work because of the virus and don't qualify for traditional benefits. This also includes independent contractors, the self-employed and gig economy workers. The pandemic program benefits mirror what's available in one's state.

Congress also allowed states to relax some of the rules to make it easier to approve applications.

The extended benefits and pandemic program end by December 31.

Here's what's happening when filers try to apply:

Being able to actually file a claim, however, is another matter. It's not pretty out there -- Americans have taken to social media to lambast their state unemployment agencies for crashing websites, error messages, endless hold times and busy signals.

The chaos has prompted several governors, including Mike DeWine of Ohio and Andy Beshear of Kentucky, to take to Twitter in recent days to acknowledge the frustrations.

Nils Warren has been trying to file an initial claim on Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity site for the past two days, but can't make it past the first few steps. The online system won't allow the audio engineer to reset his PIN, and he can't reach anyone on the hotline. He was told by the automated phone system Wednesday that he'd receive a call back within two hours. After more than six hours, the phone rang -- but then quickly disconnected.

'It just goes around and around,' he said of the agency's site. 'Or it kicks you off or you get an error message. It's like Groundhog Day but worse.'

The department, which has taken the system down for maintenance several times recently, apologized on Twitter Wednesday for the difficulty Floridians have had in submitting their claims.

Warren, who saw all his jobs for convention centers, meetings and sporting events disappear by mid-March, is hoping the unemployment payments will help cover his utilities, groceries and mortgage bills so he doesn't have to drain his savings. He's not expecting to be booked again until the summer.

Meanwhile, Texas' online system is so overloaded that the state Workforce Commission recommends people file in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. The agency's website notes that usage is lower between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged Tuesday the state system was not keeping up with the demand.

'I apologize for the pain. It must be infuriating to deal with,' he said at a press conference.

Last week, the state's Labor Department received more than 8.2 million calls, compared to 50,000 in a typical week. Its online filing system had 3.4 million visits, compared to 350,000 normally.

The agency has dedicated 700 people to the unemployment insurance hotline and is training hundreds more. It has extended call center hours, added 20 additional servers to boost its website capacity and is processing applications on Sunday.

The state is also asking people to file on certain days, based on the first letter of their last name.

Still, even late at night, the agency's page warns it can take more than an hour to apply.

'The site is so deluged that it keeps crashing because you literally have hundreds of thousands of people at any time trying to get on the site,' Cuomo said.

'It's compounding people's stress,' he said. 'You're unemployed, you're trying to get on some darn website. You can't get through the website.'

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 594427

Reported Deaths: 7389
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1229681733
Ramsey51530876
Dakota46037452
Anoka41844440
Washington26983283
Stearns22293222
St. Louis17814305
Scott17324126
Wright16121140
Olmsted1326598
Sherburne1175388
Carver1051245
Clay816792
Rice8075108
Blue Earth751941
Crow Wing666990
Kandiyohi657383
Chisago603251
Otter Tail575878
Benton572397
Goodhue478772
Douglas468576
Mower466732
Winona455150
Itasca440556
McLeod425459
Isanti424864
Morrison419860
Nobles408148
Beltrami397859
Steele389315
Polk384968
Becker381153
Lyon361251
Carlton346054
Freeborn342129
Pine329122
Nicollet326443
Brown305840
Mille Lacs305353
Le Sueur293123
Todd282832
Cass274628
Meeker257340
Waseca236522
Martin230932
Roseau209419
Wabasha20643
Hubbard190241
Dodge18543
Renville180543
Redwood174537
Houston172016
Cottonwood165823
Fillmore156710
Wadena156122
Pennington153719
Faribault152619
Chippewa152438
Kanabec145126
Sibley143910
Aitkin135336
Watonwan13329
Rock128419
Jackson121812
Pipestone116026
Yellow Medicine114220
Pope11096
Murray10639
Swift105818
Stevens91511
Marshall88117
Clearwater87016
Koochiching84315
Wilkin81612
Lake81120
Lac qui Parle75322
Big Stone6004
Lincoln5813
Grant5788
Mahnomen5539
Norman5409
Unassigned49593
Kittson48622
Red Lake3987
Traverse3705
Lake of the Woods3273
Cook1660

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 367374

Reported Deaths: 5946
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57696628
Linn20903335
Scott20071242
Black Hawk15825308
Woodbury15141228
Johnson1449883
Dubuque13382209
Dallas1118698
Pottawattamie11140168
Story1062848
Warren577889
Clinton556193
Cerro Gordo541289
Sioux514574
Webster512293
Marshall483275
Muscatine4812100
Des Moines458966
Wapello4305122
Buena Vista424940
Jasper419472
Plymouth401280
Lee376255
Marion363175
Jones299157
Henry292037
Carroll286052
Bremer284960
Crawford266240
Boone265134
Benton256655
Washington253950
Dickinson248543
Mahaska230451
Jackson222142
Clay215725
Kossuth215564
Tama209871
Delaware209741
Winneshiek196935
Page192722
Buchanan191532
Cedar190123
Hardin185743
Fayette185241
Wright184637
Hamilton180249
Harrison179673
Clayton169756
Butler165034
Madison162519
Mills162422
Floyd161142
Cherokee159038
Lyon158241
Poweshiek154934
Allamakee151451
Iowa148924
Hancock148434
Winnebago142631
Cass138654
Calhoun138413
Grundy136433
Emmet134240
Jefferson132735
Shelby130937
Sac130519
Union128333
Louisa128149
Appanoose128049
Mitchell126442
Chickasaw124116
Guthrie121530
Franklin120821
Humboldt119126
Palo Alto112823
Howard104622
Montgomery103338
Clarke100224
Unassigned9720
Keokuk95931
Monroe95229
Ida90635
Adair86532
Pocahontas85522
Davis83524
Monona82730
Osceola78816
Greene77710
Lucas77223
Worth7498
Taylor66012
Fremont6229
Decatur6089
Van Buren55918
Ringgold55824
Wayne53923
Audubon50910
Adams3384
Rochester
Partly Cloudy
72° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 72°
Mason City
Partly Cloudy
69° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 69°
Albert Lea
Partly Cloudy
68° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 68°
Austin
Partly Cloudy
70° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 70°
Charles City
Partly Cloudy
68° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 68°
Tracking continued warmth and chances for thunderstorms
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Community Events