If you lose work because of omicron, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits: What to know

"Let's say you used to work full-time and now you work two shifts a week. You would probably qualify in a lot of states."


As the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., Covid case numbers continue to spike. New York state saw more than 21,000 new infections on Thursday, said Gov. Kathy Hochul, its highest number of new cases in one day since the onset of the pandemic. The variant jumped from about 12% of cases in the week of December 5 to 73% of cases last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In response, various restaurants and retailers have been reducing hours or shuttering temporarily. "We are closed. Everyone has Covid-19 or has been exposed to it to or doesn't want to be exposed to it," reads an Instagram post by New York City thrift store AuH20.

While the March 2020 CARES Act and the March 2021 American Rescue Plan included boosted unemployment benefits, extended the length of time for which people could receive unemployment benefits, and extended benefits to people who aren't typically eligible, like gig workers, all three of those programs ended on Labor Day (or earlier, depending on the state).

"What's happening right now is exactly what we feared would happen when Congress allowed the federal pandemic extended benefits to expire," says Jenna Gerry, senior staff attorney at the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. "We knew that Covid was not over, and we said this from the beginning, that these pandemic programs were essential."

When it comes to unemployment benefits now, "what we're left with is what we had before," says Annelies Goger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, "which is a patchwork of 53 separate systems" of unemployment throughout the U.S. While there are common threads among them, each state program has its own specific rules and provisions.

Here's what to know if you need to file for unemployment right now, whether you lost your job altogether or your employer cut your hours significantly.

Eligibility for unemployment benefits varies by state

Whether or not you qualify for unemployment depends on various factors. Most states require that:

  • You are old enough to work
  • You have been let go through no fault of your own
  • You have worked a W-2 job
  • You have earned a specific amount of money within a specific base period of time (the amount varies by state and the base period is usually a year and three months prior to your application)
  • You are able and available to work
  • You are actively searching for work during the time you receive the benefits

You are not eligible for unemployment benefits if the following are true:

  • You are a gig worker who works off 1099s
  • You're still within the 52-week period of your previous unemployment cycle and you've exhausted your 26 weeks of benefits
  • You did not earn the minimum qualifying amount within the base period of time

Under the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, about 10 new Covid-specific reasons for losing your job were added as valid claims to ask for unemployment, says Goger, like getting Covid or your child-care facility shutting down.

That additional protection "went away" when the federal rules expired, Goger says. Some states may still be flexible about those additional qualifying reasons, however.

Max weekly benefits can vary a lot from state to state

By design, unemployment is only meant to replace part of your earnings. How much you get depends on how much you previously earned and the percentage the state replaces through its program. Some states replace about 50% of a person's earnings, according to the Department of Labor.

There's a limit to how much a state will replace regardless of earnings. The maximum weekly benefit in Mississippi, for example, is $235, while the maximum weekly benefit in Massachusetts is $1,234, according to DOL.

How to collect unemployment benefits

Video by David Fang

Some states, like New York, New Jersey, and Texas, offer partial earnings replacement as well, meaning that in those areas, you may be able to get benefits even if you didn't fully lose your job but your hours were cut back substantially. "Let's say you used to work full-time and now you work two shifts a week," says Goger, "you would probably qualify in a lot of states."

A benefit cycle usually lasts 52 weeks and allows for 26 weeks of benefits. Three states still offer extended unemployment benefits beyond that 26 week period: Connecticut, New Jersey, and New Mexico.

'You need to apply in the state that you work in'

When it comes to applying, "you need to apply in the state that you work in," says Goger. So if you work in New York but you live in New Jersey, for example, you'd apply in New York.

"Most states don't have a mobile accessible format," says Annelies. "So I would recommend just going on a computer of some kind" and applying.

"Application forms can have a lot of very confusing questions," she says. Try calling your state's department of labor for answers or try getting help from local legal aid providers through places like LawHelp.org or the Legal Services Corporation.

What happens after enhanced unemployment benefits run out?

Video by Stephen Parkhurst

If neither of those resources is able to help, try Googling the question or finding a forum online that may have experts who could address it. "There's a whole Reddit thread on unemployment insurance help," says Goger, "and you can ask your question or you can search for similar questions about your state."

It's important to get the details of your application right. "A lot of people now who received benefits during the pandemic are receiving overpayment and fraud notices," says Gerry. "A lot of this is due to confusion about reporting of wages." So make sure you're able to be as clear and accurate as possible once you're ready to apply.

Bottom line: "My advice to an unemployed worker is to apply," says Goger, "because it's a state-specific decision," and "you might as well try."

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