Omicron and unemployment benefits: here’s what you need to know

Pedestrians line up at the mobile Covid-19 test site at Columbus Circle in New York on December 5, 2021.

Gina Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Covid cases are skyrocketing in parts of the US, and the highly contagious omicron variant is expected to fuel a new viral wave that will escalate into the winter.

Several restaurants and Broadway shows have temporarily closed in New York this week. The city’s positivity rate doubled to 7.8% in three days, December 9-12.

Restaurants outside of New York were forced to close your doors, too much.

The same dynamic could soon affect a wider range of Americans. Omicron is more contagious than the delta variant and cases doubling about every two days.

Workers who lose hours of work or lose their jobs may wonder: Am I eligible for unemployment benefits?

For many, the answer is yes.

However, the US unemployment system has many nuances and complex rules, which means that the situation will vary depending on the state and individual circumstances.

And some groups of workers who were eligible for assistance earlier during the pandemic may find that assistance is no longer being provided. Temporary federal programs expanding the social security system for the unemployed expired on Labor Day. Sick people who miss work, or self-employed people who, for example, are losing sufficient earnings are likely to be out of luck.

Ultimately, the decision of whether someone is eligible for the program will depend on the state employment agency, said Michelle Evermore, senior adviser on unemployment insurance policy at the US Department of Labor.

Bottom line: Workers must apply if they think they can qualify, Evermore said. She advised workers to be careful when communicating data in their applications. (One common and costly mistake, such as reporting no income for the week since payday has not yet arrived.)

Here’s what you need to know.

Partial benefits

Unemployment benefits are available for non-termination cases; workers who lose a significant number of hours can also qualify for this.

According to Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, in most states, workers generally need to lose at least half of their weekly jobs to qualify to qualify. Thus, a restaurant employee who loses two out of four work shifts due to the temporary closure of Covid may qualify for it.

These “partial” unemployment benefits are part of the full amount due to complete loss of employment.

Partial benefit rules (including amount and eligibility) vary from state to state.

Eligibility rules

There are many factors that affect your eligibility for benefits. There are two main factors: your income history and your receipt of benefits over the past year.

Getting government unemployment insurance starts the “benefit year”. This is a 52-week cycle during which you can receive a set number of weekly benefits.

The states determine the weekly amount based on your income history, usually from the last four or five full quarters of work.

Omicron exposure

Some workers may need to stay at home due to Covid infection or illness, which could result in loss of wages.

Workers who require quarantine due to close contact with a test-positive person may be eligible for benefits, Evermore said. States may consider this person “capable and ready to work” as a key component of eligibility for the program.

Perhaps paradoxically, this is not the case for those who test positive for Covid and who cannot work, Evermore said.

“Unemployment insurance was never meant to pay for sick leave,” Evermore said. Employees can get paid leave from their employer or through a government program, she said.

Self-employed and giants

Previously, this was not the case during the pandemic. Congress has expanded the pool of workers eligible for unemployment benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which is part of the CARES Act passed in March 2020.

The PUA program offered federal benefits to those who missed work for a variety of Covid-related reasons (such as contracting the virus or caring for a sick person). It also paid workers, self-employed people, independent contractors, freelancers, and others who would not normally be eligible for government benefits.

This program expired on Labor Day, which means that many of these groups can no longer qualify for it. However, Evermore said some government employment agencies may designate workers and independent contractors as eligible if they meet certain employment requirements.

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