Your Money: As U.S. unemployment claims surge, know your status

FILE PHOTO: A "Help Wanted" sign sits in the window of a shop in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

March 17, 2020

By Beth Pinsker

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Applications for unemployment insurance are skyrocketing across the United States. In Ohio, the number tripled from last week through Sunday, up to 12,000, according to the state’s governor. Calls to the Unemployment Law Project of Washington State shot up 150% in the last week, according to executive director John Tirpak.

We are only just getting started, as more businesses and institutions shut down due to coronavirus fears.

In the last few days, Tirpak has heard mostly from people with customer-facing jobs like restaurant and airline workers. “The impact of this will be disproportionately on the people who are struggling the most,” Tirpak said.

Unemployment checks can help workers stay afloat financially, but the application process is daunting, restrictions are many and rules are in flux.

Here is what you need to know about filing a claim, depending on your employment status:

*If you are fully laid off from a W-2 job

Go immediately to your state’s department of labor unemployment website. Washington State, where unemployment benefits are considered very progressive, has a page set up just for job loss related to COVID-19 (

Every state has different requirements for how long you need to have been employed in order to qualify, how much money you will receive and the duration of the unemployment benefit.

These rules are also constantly changing as the federal government considers relief bills and individual states are passing their updates. For instance, the maximum mandated federal coverage is 26 weeks, but that will likely be extended.

*If hours were reduced from a W-2 job

Try to apply for benefits to make up some of the difference between your usual wages and what you are making now, Tirpak suggested. “It won’t be 100%, but there’s no reason to quit at this time. It’s good to preserve jobs,” Tirpak added.

*If you do not feel safe in your job

If you are called into work and do not feel it is reasonable to go in, you are ill, you are caring for somebody who is ill or you are caring for a child, you may qualify for emergency benefits.

“States are really trying to figure it out,” Evermore said, noting that California and New York have been well ahead of the curve so far.

In general, if you qualify for unemployment benefits in any capacity, you could also cite safety considerations if you wanted to refuse a job interview, even if you are facing state requirements that you be ready and able to take another job. It is difficult right now to look for work in person and drop off applications, obviously.

*If you are a gig worker for a major company

Drivers for services like Uber and Lyft may have a claim for unemployment because they should be considered employees, Tirpak said. His non-profit organization helps workers files claims and then represents them if they are denied, so he is intending to fight for gig workers to get benefits.

*If you are fully freelance

There may be help coming for independent contractors too, said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

Disaster Unemployment Assistance could apply to self-employed individuals. This kicks in after regular unemployment insurance gets exhausted for regular recipients, but it would apply faster if you do not qualify for that. There may also eventually be stimulus checks or other national benefits available.

“I think people are trying to do the right things. Some states are just slower because they haven’t felt affected yet,” Evermore said.

Evermore recently published a paper questioning if state unemployment agencies are able to handle recessions. The answer was no. (

“States have cut the number of weeks covered, at the same time increased the requirements and are denying claims more often,” Evermore said.

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at Editing by Lauren Young and David Gregorio)