So You Lost Your Income Because of COVID-19: Now What?

With a global pandemic and an uncertain economic future on the forefront of our minds, the last news you want to receive is that you no longer have a job -- be it permanently or until we have passed through this crisis.

As a manager in retail, the last few weeks have been filled with uncertainty and fear. As traffic dropped due to our collective social distancing efforts and cleaning supplies within the store ran low, there was immense pressure from our home offices to eliminate shifts and add dollars to the sales from whatever traffic was still coming into the stores. For our last days open, we received emails instructing us to close earlier and earlier and open later and later with fewer and fewer shifts. Only managers were allowed to be scheduled and even full time managers weren’t able to get anywhere close to their full time hours, being forced to either take the decreased income or utilize their accumulated paid time off in order to make up the difference. 

While our time operating the store on a semi-normal basis was stressful, the situation only became more uncertain when we received the news that the entire company was ceasing physical operations until at least the 28th of March. Scheduled associates were to be paid for their scheduled shifts during our reduced hours of operation. 

Even then, we all knew it was unlikely that we would be able to make that projected reopening date given the exponential growth of the rate of infection in the United States. Each of our best-case-scenarios was that the stores would be able to reopen and make as many schedules as possible before they inevitably closed the stores yet again. 

Through all of it, the thing that stuck out the most to me was the sense that the company didn’t *actually* care about the health and safety of customers or associates and were decreasing hours and closing the stores because they were aware that we were running extremely low on essential supplies like hand sanitizer, soap and disinfectant to sanitize the store. In fact, in each notification of a change in operations, they rarely even mentioned COVID-19 -- only the extreme decrease in traffic and sales. 

Unsurprisingly, we were eventually notified -- via a text from our store manager, not the company itself -- that we would not be reopening as planned and associates would no longer be paid, however, we were not given a projected reopening date or any further information. Days later, we were notified by another text message from the store manager that she had been informed that we were not opening for the month of April (and likely not for weeks after that) and all associates would be officially furloughed until further notice.

This is happening in waves across the country and the world, over 3.4 million people filed for unemployment claims in  the United States alone. Whether you work in the service industry or not, we all share the same fear that as the weeks and months stretch on with the economy at a halt we’ll be caught in the financial fallout. Continuing to limit contact and social distance is absolutely the right thing to do and we all have a duty to do our part and continue to protect our most vulnerable and our essential workers at the frontlines, it’s still a scary time and we may be feeling the impacts from it for years to come. 

However, despite the uncertainty and fear that comes along with losing your income, you *do* have options.

When can I file for unemployment? 

You can file a claim beginning a full day after the date that you’re no longer employed or working. While this may sound like a no-brainer, there can be some technicalities that you need to keep in mind. In my case, the last day I was able to report to work, the last day I was paid and the day my furlough was effective on were all different days, making knowing when to file a little difficult. To be safe, I filed after the date that my furlough was effective on just to make sure I wasn’t going to have to refile. 

How can I file?

In Virginia, you can file by phone Monday through Friday from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or online at any time. The website suggests that filing can take around an hour, but I would suggest budgeting a little bit more than that due to the fact that the website is experiencing a lot of traffic at any given time. They also give a quick list of all the information you’re going to want to have, such as your social security number and employer information (i.e. your W-2) so I would recommend gathering it all up ahead of time so the process can run a little bit smoother.

I would also keep in mind while filing that the application wasn’t *really* designed for a situation like this and I found a lot of the questions difficult to answer because of the unpredictable nature of the situation. Some of the questions were also worded very oddly and had everyone in my family confused, so be patient and remember that Google is your friend.

How do I know if I’m eligible?

Under normal circumstances, the requirements to receive unemployment benefits are much more stringent -- including the requirement to be actively seeking work (at least 2 applications a week!). However, in order to ensure that everyone who needs benefits has access to them, many states have temporarily loosened restrictions.

In Virginia, the waiting period has been waived so that you can receive benefits as soon after filing as possible. Additionally, there is currently no requirement to be actively seeking a job since many will -- hopefully -- be returning to their original jobs as soon as possible and we’re advised to stay home as much as possible, making starting a new job difficult in many cases. You are also able to apply for benefits simply because of a reduction in wages, which is normally incredibly difficult to do. Keep in mind that every state has different laws and regulations surrounding claiming unemployment benefits, make sure you check your state’s guidelines before filing!

The most important part of maintaining eligibility is remembering to file your claim *every week* in order to keep receiving benefits. You won’t have to redo the entire application each time, but there is a form to fill out -- so set a reminder on your phone and don’t forget!

What about that $1,200 check from the CARES Act stimulus package?

Well, I’ve got bad news for you. If your parents claimed you as a dependent on their 2018 taxes (or 2019 if they’ve already filed), you’re unfortunately not going to receive any money at this time. Additionally, assuming you're over the age of 16, your parents won’t receive the $500 check for dependents under the age of 16. If you do file for and are approved to receive unemployment benefits, you will receive the extra $600 from the CARES Act on top of the normal benefit, but regardless of the financial hardships you or your family might be facing as a result of the widespread lay-offs, furloughs, and reductions in force, the federal government won’t be cutting any $1,200 checks for you. 

However, Minnesota Representative Angie Craig has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives aimed at extending CARES Act coverage to dependents between the ages of 17 and 24 as well as other groups that were left out of the original legislation. “I have already heard from a number of college students who are surprised that neither they nor their parents will receive any benefit from our rescue plan. Many of these students are now back home due to shuttered colleges around the country. The definition used in the Senate bill is too narrow and will deprive them of the rebate families were expecting to receive to help pay their bills and support their families,” Representative Craig says in a letter to the Chairman of the House Ways and Means committee. 

The best and most effective way you can help ensure Representative Craig’s bill can progress forward is to contact your representative and share how you and your loved ones have been impacted by this crisis and will be impacted further without extended coverage -- I did!

While this is a scary time for all of us, remember that you’re not the only one that's struggling through this, but if we work together to flatten the curve we’ll all be back on the job sooner rather than later.. Stay safe, stay inside and stay healthy -- everything else comes second.