Federal unemployment benefits prompted by pandemic job losses expired at the end of July, and a recent flurry of government activity resulted in an executive order issuing $400 a week to people who are unemployed.
The weekly benefit will help the more than 30 million Americans now claiming unemployment as well as the hundreds of thousands of new applicants each week. The details surrounding this round of benefits have not been finalized, however, and it remains unclear as to who will be eligible, exactly how much they will receive, and when the payments will begin.
Here’s what we do know.
$400 a Week Isn’t Guaranteed
While this payment program, called Lost Wages Assistance, will come on top of state unemployment benefits, it looks like not everyone eligible will receive the full $400 each week. The reason? One stipulation of this new benefit is that states must provide 25 percent, or $100 of each payment, unlike the recently expired program, which was fully federally funded.
Some states aren’t in a financial position to supplement federal unemployment and may take advantage of a loophole that will lower the payment. The federal government has noted that states can count existing benefits they pay an unemployed worker toward their share of the new supplement. That would reduce the federal payment to $300 per week.
One expert believes few states will provide the additional $100 on top of state unemployment benefits. Many states are facing budget shortfalls due to decreased tax revenue during coronavirus lockdown—the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts state budget shortfalls could total $555 billion.
“They’re stretched,” Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, recently told the New York Times. “They don’t have money for masks for the teachers in their schools. They’re probably not going to come up with an extra $100 for everyone on unemployment insurance.”
In late August, the states of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Montana announced that they would provide the $100 in matching funds so that unemployed workers will receive the full $400 weekly federal benefit. South Dakota has opted out of the program entirely, and other states have announced that they will not provide the extra money. In those states, eligible people who receive unemployment will get $300 each week.
Not Everyone Will Qualify
Unfortunately, new Labor Department guidelines for the Lost Wages Assistance program could exclude the people who need it most, including people who freelance or work part-time.
People who qualified for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programs through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and can continue to provide self-certification that they lost their job because of COVID-19 should receive the new unemployment benefits. To ensure that they receive the new benefit, however, they should be careful to state on the application that they are unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19.
Another loophole could be problematic as well. People who receive less than $100 a week in state unemployment benefits won’t be eligible for the federal weekly $300. Experts estimate this could exclude as many as 1 million workers, including low-wage earners and people who work part-time.
When will the benefits be paid?
Right now, there’s no clear guidance on when the first Lost Wages Assistance checks will be sent. Some estimate it could take months, as states that are already managing huge loads of unemployment filings will have to administer their portion of the program. Precedent may be helpful; some states took months to send out checks under the initial pandemic federal unemployment assistance program.
One Department of Labor official who works in Hawaii recently said in a media interview that the state’s computer system will have to be reprogrammed to meet federal requirements, a problem many states with older computer systems are facing. States with updated computer systems also may not be able to get payments out quickly, according to some estimates.
State offices are busy fielding questions about the new benefits—one New Mexico government official told a news outlet that his office received thousands of calls the first workday after the initial stimulus bill was signed into law in March.
While much about the Lost Wages Assistance program remains up in the air, there is some good news. The program is retroactive to August 1, so qualified recipients will receive a large first payment at some point.
The benefits are scheduled to continue through the week of December 6, which means recipients will receive financial help for another four months. This will provide some certainty for families and individuals as they make decisions about budgeting and spending this year. While the money does have an endpoint, federal elected leaders may implement another round of unemployment benefits at that time if Americans still need additional financial help due to the pandemic.