If your employer has put you on temporary unpaid leave or furloughed you, due to the COVID-19 crisis, you’re not alone.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought most industries to a near standstill. Millions of Americans working in “non-essential” businesses have been furloughed or laid off. While definitions for essential versus non-essential businesses vary from state to state, most employees who can’t work from home have seen their income decrease significantly. Help is available.
Expanded Unemployment Benefits
Although furloughed employees technically retain their jobs, they receive no income and therefore can collect unemployment. With the recently passed federal CARES Act, the following benefits are available if you’re on unpaid leave or have been laid off due to COVID-19:
- State-based unemployment. These benefits are calculated as a weekly amount that varies depending on your state and your recent income levels—the more you used to earn the more you’ll receive.
- $600 per week in federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) through July 31, 2020. This amount does not vary. Every eligible individual, from minimum-wage workers to highly paid professionals, gets the same $600/week.
- An extra paid week. Most states have a one-week unpaid waiting period for unemployment benefits. However, the CARES Act eliminated the waiting period for unemployment caused by the pandemic.
- An extended benefits period. Most states limit benefits to 26 weeks—half a year. Under the CARES Act, states must provide benefits for up to 13 more weeks—for a total of 39 weeks—for folks who lost their income due to the pandemic.
- Broader access to unemployment benefits. People who don’t qualify for state benefits under normal circumstances, such as freelancers, folks with short employment histories, or people who have maxed out their benefits, qualify now if their unemployment is due to the pandemic.
To start receiving unemployment benefits, apply through your state’s online system. This first step will take time. Due to the impact of coronavirus, many states’ unemployment websites are crashing and phone lines are swamped.
You’ll receive the same benefits regardless of when you file an application since both state unemployment and federal PUC are paid retroactively to the time you became eligible, which in most cases means the time you stopped working. However, the sooner you file, the sooner your benefits will come.
Health Insurance Issues
One key difference between being furloughed and being laid off is that if you’re on leave, many employers will continue to pay for your health insurance. For example, retail giants like Macy’s and Kohl’s have been hit hard by the pandemic and have furloughed thousands of employees, but their workers’ insurance coverage—health, dental, vision, and other benefits—will continue at least through May. This approach is common among larger employers, but rarer among smaller ones.
Whether your employer provides insurance during leave and how long your provided insurance lasts, depends on a number of factors. Some are outside your employer’s control.For instance, providing insurance to furloughed employees may be against the insurer’s rules. Be sure to keep track of whether you get to keep your insurance through your employer and whether you need to look for alternate options. If you are not covered, you have the same options as employees who lose insurance due to layoffs:
- COBRA. Keep your existing insurance by paying the entire premium (employer and employee portions) yourself. Ask your employer for details; they are legally required to inform you of your COBRA rights and provide the information you need to sign up.
- Affordable Care Act. Losing your employer-based insurance is a qualifying event that gives you the right to a Special Enrollment Period, allowing you to sign up for an Obamacare plan outside the normal enrollment period.
- Spousal plan. If your spouse has health insurance, losing your coverage is a qualifying event that lets them add you to the plan outside the normal enrollment period.
- Lower-income workers who rely on Medicaid or CHIP for health insurance should know that PUC does not count as income for those programs. In other words, receiving PUC will not count against your eligibility.
An upside to being furloughed is knowing that your employer intends to give you your old job back after the pandemic is over. Furloughs provide reassurance that laid-off employees and freelancers don’t have. However, everyone needs a source of income, especially during trying times. State governments have expanded unemployment benefits to help American workers navigate this stressful and uncertain period of time. Make sure you stay up to date with the news and apply for what you’re eligible for.