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AARP Answers: Unemployment and the Coronavirus

The latest on applying for benefits, eligibility, additional stimulus benefits and more

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Can I get unemployment benefits because I lost my job due to the coronavirus?

In most cases, if you lost your job as a result of the shutdowns related to the pandemic, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. In particular, recent federal law has given states flexibility to offer unemployment benefits to workers when:

  • an employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19.
  • they are quarantined but expect to return to the job after the quarantine ends.
  • they leave a job because of the risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.

Because of the economic crisis that the pandemic has caused, the federal government has also raised the amount of money you can receive in benefits. You can now get an additional $300 per week, on top of the typical state benefit you would receive. This additional $300 increase is set to expire on Sept. 6, 2021. What's more, under the recent federal COVID response bill, you can receive unemployment benefits for up to 79 weeks through the various relief programs the federal government has created.

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Because of the coronavirus stimulus legislation, gig workers and the self-employed are also eligible for these unemployment benefits. The provision that makes both of these categories of workers eligible for benefits is scheduled to expire on Sept. 6, 2021.

In general, unemployment benefits are meant as a way for people who are temporarily out of work, through no fault of their own, to support themselves while they look for a job. If you weren't fired for cause or didn't quit, you would meet the basic requirement for eligibility for unemployment benefits. But you still need to meet certain standards set by your state, such as the length of time you held the job and/or an income minimum.

How do I apply for unemployment benefits?

Each state runs its own unemployment insurance program in partnership with the federal government. That means there are differences from state to state. But in general, you typically have to apply for benefits through the labor department or unemployment agency in the state where you worked, not where you live. You will need to give the agency basic information, such as the address of your employer and the dates you worked for the company. Once you have filed your claim, if you qualify for benefits, you should receive your first check in two to three weeks.

(Find contact information for filing unemployment claims in your state.)

Several states are reporting high call volumes to unemployment hotlines, where applications are taken over the phone, due to a spike in coronavirus-related job losses. So try filing your unemployment application online. Some states are also temporarily waiving waiting periods to qualify for benefits, as well as waiving requirements to conduct weekly job searches.

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How much money can I get if I apply for unemployment benefits?

If you qualify to receive unemployment benefits, the money you get is based on how much you were earning in the job you lost. Each state has its own formula, but usually it's a percentage of your previous income, say, 50 percent, with a cap at a certain level. Under the current legislation, the federal government will add an additional $300 per week to the amount that you qualify for under your state's unemployment insurance program. Additionally, states differ in the number of weeks of unemployment payments individuals may receive. Although most states offer up to 26 weeks, several offer less.

Some states take into consideration, too, whether you have dependents, and may add a small amount of money to your unemployment benefit if you do. Unemployment benefits are subject to federal income taxes.

Are gig workers eligible for unemployment benefits?

Yes, under federal legislation, people who work in gig jobs or fill other types of freelance positions now can receive unemployment benefits. Before this law was passed, most of these workers would not have been eligible. That’s good news for people whose gig work has dried up, but it also means the state unemployment departments will need time to figure out how to process these new applications. Contact your state’s unemployment agency to learn more about benefits eligibility under the new federal law.

Do I have to earn a certain amount of money or work for a certain period of time on the job I lost to qualify for unemployment?

Most states have an earnings threshold you must have met on the job you lost in order to claim unemployment benefits. Check with your state for the minimum amount of earnings required. Some states also set a minimum amount of time you must have worked for that employer.

I receive Social Security benefits but was working part-time. Am I eligible for unemployment benefits?

You can collect unemployment even if you already receive Social Security benefits. In fact, unemployment benefits are not considered wages under the Social Security annual earnings test, so they will not affect your Social Security benefits.

In the past, some states reduced an unemployment benefit if you were receiving Social Security benefits, but all states that had such policies have repealed them.

If I qualify, how long does it take to get a benefits check?

Once you have submitted the required paperwork and have been approved for unemployment benefits, you should receive your first benefits payment in two to three weeks.

How long can I collect unemployment benefits?

Under the new federal stimulus law designed to fight the economic effects of the pandemic, you may be able to claim unemployment benefits for up to 79 weeks through the various federal programs created to offer relief during the pandemic. In most states you can collect unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks (half a year) if you do not find another job during that period and continue to meet your state's requirements for ongoing benefits, such as looking for work and filing the required paperwork regularly. Some states, however, offer less than 26 weeks of benefits.

Do I have to pay taxes on my unemployment benefits?

In general, unemployment benefits are considered taxable income, so the answer would be yes. However, new legislation created just for the pandemic waives federal taxes on the first $10,200 an individual received in unemployment benefits in 2020. Couples who file jointly would not have to pay taxes on the first $20,400 in unemployment benefits. Only individuals and couples who earned less than $150,000 in adjusted gross income in 2020 are eligible for these waivers.

Your state might still tax your unemployment benefits though, so it’s important to set aside money for that obligation, either through withholding from the benefits directly or through savings.

What can I do if my claim for unemployment benefits is denied?

You can appeal the decision, in writing or over the phone, through your state labor department or unemployment agency. A hearing also may be scheduled for you to make your case. There are several reasons beyond the minimum eligibility requirements that people are denied benefits. Some of the most common include not being fully available to work now, having recently turned down other jobs that were suitable or earning some income that was not reported to the agency.

Can I get unemployment benefits if I was fired?

If you were fired for reasons that aren't necessarily your fault — say, the job was a bad fit for your skills — you may still be eligible for benefits. On the other hand, if you violated the company's standards of conduct or stole property or money, for instance, the unemployment department likely will consider the job loss to be your fault and deny you benefits.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information about the federal relief legislation signed on March 11, 2021.

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