Coronavirus Unemployment: How to Apply for Benefits If You Lose Your Job

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of millions across the country — and many are now having to scramble for rent. According to a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, nearly one in five households have already experienced a layoff or reduction in work hours due to the coronavirus.

As a result, record numbers of people are turning to unemployment insurance, with claims straining the infrastructure of federal and state unemployment offices. The ground is shifting, as lawmakers are currently looking into plans to expand unemployment benefits and offer relief in the form of direct payments to taxpayers, but here’s what we know now about unemployment.

We asked Virginia Hamill, insurance analyst for, about who qualifies for unemployment, how to apply and what to expect.

What is unemployment insurance?

Unemployment benefits take the form of temporary cash assistance to workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are looking for a new one. Unemployment is jointly managed by federal and state governments, the latter of which have flexibility in determining eligibility requirements and benefit amounts. If your claim is accepted, your income is partially restored (typically between 40% and 50%, depending on the state), and you must recertify those benefits by proving you are looking for work on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Am I eligible?

The Department of Labor specifies the following eligibility guidelines for unemployment benefits:

  • You must be unemployed through no fault of your own. “That typically means employees who have been laid off rather than fired,” Hamill explains. “But it could also apply to employees who have been furloughed because of the coronavirus.” Employees who have been fired are not automatically disqualified, but do need a good reason, like dangerous working conditions or medical reasons.
  • You must meet your state’s requirements for wages earned or time worked during the “base period.” For most states, this base period means the first four of the previous five calendar quarters — that is, roughly within the last year. You can find details on your state’s requirements on CareerOneStop.

At this time, the federal government has given states flexibility in determining who qualifies for unemployment in the time of coronavirus.

“Right now, federal law allows states to pay benefits to employees if their employer ceases operations, as well as to employees who are quarantined but expect to return to work and those that leave work to care for an infected family member,” Hamill says. Additionally, federal law does not require workers to have quit their jobs in order to receive benefits.

Some states do not cover part-time or temporary workers who have lost their jobs. Gig workers are typically not qualified for unemployment because of their classification as self-employed.

How much would I earn?

Each state has its own formula to calculate benefits based on your previous earnings and hours worked. This will typically be between 40% to 50% of your income. For example, Illinois pays you 47% of your income from the two highest paid quarters of the base period.

How do I apply?

To claim unemployment benefits, you will need to file a claim in the state where you worked. You can find the application, contact info, and eligibility requirements for the unemployment offices of all 50 states with the Department of Labor. When you search your state on this website, you should be able to find updates on how your state is handling unemployment with the pandemic.

If you worked in a different state or worked in multiple states, then your residency state’s unemployment insurance agency can offer advice on how to apply in other states.

The application will likely ask if you are looking for and available for work, your dates of employment, wages earned, the reason for your unemployment, and other information.

If you do not qualify in the application but think that you should based on the requirements outlined by your state, we recommend contacting a legal aid clinic near you. They may be able to appeal the decision and get you unemployment benefits.

How long will it take for benefits to kick in?

Generally, there is a one-week waiting period for benefits to start, but some states have already waived this requirement. Check with your specific state on when you can expect the check or direct deposit.
Do I need to re-apply when they run out, and when?

Most states require you to recertify for benefits on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, either online or over the phone. You must be able, available, and willing to accept work to keep receiving benefits. You must also report any job offers, job applications, earnings from part-time work, and any instances where you’ve refused work (including reasoning). If you don’t provide proper or accurate documentation, you could lose your benefits.

Experts cited

Virginia Hamill

virginia hamill

Virginia Hamill is the Senior Insurance Analyst at Prior to joining, Virginia worked at Insureon, an online insurance agency. She holds a Master’s Degree from DePaul University and has written for a number of digital finance and insurance companies, including Kin and TopstepTrader.

Taylor Moore

Financial Reporter

Taylor Moore is a financial reporter at The Simple Dollar who specializes in personal finance, banking, and money management. Based in Chicago, her journalism has been featured in VICE, CityLab, Jacobin, In These Times, the AV Club, The Financial Diet, and other outlets.

Reviewed by

  • Victoria Lurie
    Victoria Lurie