Millions of Americans have lost their jobs as many businesses around the country temporarily close or reduce their hours because of the coronavirus pandemic. To soften the blow, the Senate late Wednesday passed a stimulus bill to help workers and businesses. Here’s what you need to know about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act if you’ve filed for unemployment.

The $2 trillion package gives more money to unemployed workers for an extended period of time. It also covers more workers than traditional unemployment insurance has in the past. It’s extra funding that Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer calls “unemployment on steroids.

Unemployed workers will get up to $600 per week on top of what they get from state benefits. That’s an unprecedented boost in money that will get most Americans close to their usual paycheck amount, said unemployment insurance expert Christopher J. O’Leary at the W.E. Upjohn Institute. The average unemployment check is less than $400 per week, O’Leary said. The low range is $144 in Tennessee and the high is $515 in Massachusetts. 

The $600 payout was a point of criticism among some Republican senators Wednesday, arguing that the amount could give some Americans more pay than they would normally get from working in their jobs. Democrats and many other Republicans rejected that line of thinking, saying that few workers would benefit in that fashion and that any overpayment wouldn’t last long. 


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Workers can claim unemployment for no more than 39 weeks, up from the typical 26 weeks that most states offer a newly unemployed worker. A person who rejoins the workforce will have their unemployment halted as usual. 

The stimulus package also covers unemployed workers who were self-employed, “gig” workers and freelancers — for example, that could include independent consultants, Lyft drivers, UberEats delivery workers, freelance journalists or personal assistants on TaskRabbit. Formerly, such workers couldn’t claim unemployment. 

The urgent question now: How will the government determine what level of jobless benefits to offer such workers, said Erica Groshen, a former U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner who now teaches at Cornell University. Many so-called gig economy workers draw paychecks from one or two employers, which can complicate the government’s calculation. 

Federal officials could ask companies to submit copies of 1099-MISC IRS forms for all their non-employee compensated workers, Groshen said, but she emphasized it’s still not clear yet how payments to gig workers will be figured out. 

Roughly 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, causing a massive backlog of new cases for state workers to process. The stimulus package includes money for more staffing at unemployment offices around the country, but it’s unclear how soon workers could receive their first unemployment checks.

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