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Q&A: Here’s how the expanded federal unemployment benefits work

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Congress has passed an unprecedented $2 trillion economic rescue package in an effort to stabilize the country’s households and businesses as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

One section of the new law — known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — makes extensive changes to unemployment insurance in order to expand benefits.

WPRI 12 is getting a lot of questions about who is eligible for the expanded benefits and how to apply. Here’s what you need to know, based on information provided by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s office and Republican staffers on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Updates: This Q&A was originally published on March 30, and updates have been added in places to reflect newer information.

• Related: Out of work in RI due to COVID-19? Here’s what you’re eligible for

Can you start with the basics?

The traditional unemployment insurance program has been around for many decades. It operates year-round, since some people are always losing their jobs, even in a good economy.

If you want to get up to speed on the basics about Rhode Island’s standard programs for out-of-work individuals, check out this WPRI.com Q&A we posted recently. (The information below is specifically about the new programs created by the CARES Act.)

In general, people who qualify for unemployment insurance in normal times are eligible for 26 weeks of benefits, which replace a portion of their lost wages. They are required to look for work while they collect.

How did Congress change unemployment in the CARES Act?

Lawmakers made a number of changes, but in short they expanded how many people qualify for unemployment benefits, how much money they get, and for how long they can collect.

The law creates a new temporary program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that is being set up now and will expire on Dec. 31. It’s meant to cover many of the people who have lost work because of the COVID-19 emergency but fall through the cracks of the traditional unemployment system.

How do know if I should apply to the traditional program or the new one?

The simplest way to think of it is this: if you had a standard job with a W-2 and just got laid off, you should apply for the traditional unemployment program. If you are paid on a 1099 or have some other circumstance, you are probably going to want to apply for the new program once it’s up and running. (See below on how and when to apply.)

A word of caution, however — there are still a number of outstanding questions about all this, and state agencies like the R.I. Department of Labor and Training are waiting for guidance from the federal government before they provide specific answers about the new program.

I am someone who wouldn’t qualify for typical unemployment benefits. How will this affect me?

A longstanding criticism of the unemployment insurance program is that it generally only covers people with traditional jobs, not people who are self-employed or in the “gig economy.”

The new temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program will cover self-employed individuals, freelancers, independent contractors and people with limited work history.

How do I sign up for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program?

Stay tuned. As mentioned above, the federal government is still working to get guidance out to the states on how to administer the program.

The Department of Labor and Training says anyone who thinks they will qualify for the new program — or cannot get benefits from traditional unemployment for some reason — should sign up for this mailing list on their website. People who sign up will receive further information as soon as it’s available.

But don’t put an application in for the traditional unemployment system if you think you only qualify under the new one.

If you want to get ready to apply, however, DLT has this Guide to Filing on its website.

Update (April 6): DLT will begin accepting applications for the new temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program on Tuesday, April 7 at 8 a.m., according to the governor.

If you think you qualify for the new program, you can file your application here.

How much longer can people collect benefits?

The CARES Act extends how long someone can collect unemployment benefits by an additional 13 weeks. In Rhode Island, that means you will be able to collect for up to 39 weeks, instead of 26 weeks.

The 13-week extension is retroactive to Jan. 27, and it expires on Dec. 31.

I already used up my standard 26 weeks of unemployment benefits but haven’t found a job. How do I get the additional 13 weeks?

The Department of Labor and Training recommends that you also sign up for their mailing list on the COVID-19 emergency benefits and await more information.

I was denied regular unemployment benefits. What should I do?

The Department of Labor and Training recommends that you also sign up for their mailing list on the COVID-19 emergency benefits, since it’s possible you could qualify for something under the CARES Act provisions even though you didn’t qualify under the traditional program.

I’ve heard about an extra $600. What’s the story with that?

One provision in the CARES Act says that workers who are unemployed will receive an extra $600 a week, funded by the federal government, on top of the amount they would normally get on the program. That provision expires July 31, so it’s only for the next four months.

While DLT officials are still awaiting further details, they say the amount should automatically be added to individuals’ payments once it becomes available.

Where can I get more information?

As mentioned above, sign up for the DLT’s mailing list to receive more information on the COVID-19 emergency unemployment programs.

And for more on the programs available in Rhode Island to out-of-work individuals, check out this WPRI.com Q&A that covers traditional unemployment insurance, Temporary Disability Insurance and Temporary Caregiver Insurance.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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