Since coronavirus hit the US in February, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment, according to The New York Times. That puts the unemployment rate at 20%. For context, the highest unemployment rate after the 1929 stock market crash was 24% in 1933. So, this is bad. 

On the bright side, a program under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) has created additional unemployment resources, according to The Department of Labor

Here’s a list of the added benefits: 

  1. More money. Under The CARES Act, unemployed persons qualify for $600 a week in federal money in addition to what they receive from the state. This benefit runs through July 31, 2020. 
  2. Longer benefits. Typically, an unemployed worker can collect unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. But under PUA, you can collect unemployment for 13 additional weeks, for a total of 39. This benefit expires January 1, 2021. 
  3. Freelance, part-time, and self-employed workers qualify. “Normally the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers are not eligible for UI because they do not contribute to the unemployment insurance fund like a salaried worker,” New York-based employment lawyer David Reischer says. But under the new PUA program, gig workers, part-timers, freelancers, and self-employed people qualify for benefits through Dec. 31, 2020. 

So, how can you take advantage of these additional benefits? 

  • Don’t resign from your job! If it appears that you could be working but chose not to, you will not qualify for benefits. “To avoid any ambiguity or confusion, do not resign from your job if requested by the employer,” New York-based employment lawyer Steven Mitchell Sack says. “Always request the company to state, in writing if possible, that you were terminated to ensure that you are able to apply for, and receive, unemployment insurance benefits.” 
  • Defer severance pay if possible. When some companies terminate your contract, they offer a lump sum of severance pay to help bridge the gap while you look for new work. “Some states may not allow you to collect unemployment insurance benefits while you are receiving severance pay,” Sack says. “Thus, it may be a good idea to defer receiving your lump sum severance pay for another month or two until after unemployment begins, so there are no underlying issues.”
  • Get in touch with your state’s department of labor. Unfortunately, this sounds easier than it is. “It took my husband thousands of dials,  maybe tens of thousands,” says Maryland resident Blaire Postman, whose husband was laid off from his job as a furniture salesman two days before colon cancer surgery back in February. They decided not to file for unemployment then because they were confident he’d get a new job as soon as he recovered. But then, Covid-19 hit and they realized they’d need the unemployment help. DOL representatives are swamped,” Sack says. “It may be more effective to go online and fill out a form there, or download, print, fill out and mail in the form.”
  • Sort out your health insurance. Because of your new employment status, you may qualify for free healthcare via Medicaid. Qualifications vary by state, so visit healthcare.gov’s Medicaid page to find out if you should apply. 

Getting unemployment benefits can be a pain, but it can be well-worth the hassle. Just remember   that you qualify for unemployment benefits for 39 weeks, or until you’re offered a job, whichever comes first.

“A person that refuses to go back to work may no longer be eligible to collect unemployment,” Reischer says. “If the business is permitted by law to open up and the employee prefers to collect UI or PUA rather than go back to work, that may disqualify the worker from continuing to receive UI or PUA benefits. A general concern about COVID-19 does not make a person eligible to receive UI or PUA if the employer wants to hire the worker back.”