As the economy continues to founder under the weight of the novel coronavirus pandemic, questions continue to arise about state and federal unemployment benefits.
Which type of benefits do you qualify for? How long do they last? What happens if your bosses want you to come back to work, but you’re concerned about your safety or you might not work as many hours as before?
And if you are one of the many people experiencing trouble with North Carolina’s unemployment system, how can you contact politicians for help? And why is it taking so long anyway?
Over the last two months, dozens of readers have contacted The News & Observer of Raleigh with questions and concerns. So here are answers to some of the most frequently asked recent questions.
And for any questions that aren’t answered here, visit https://des.nc.gov, the state’s unemployment website. It has many more FAQs, not just for workers but also for business owners.
What are the different kinds of benefits?
State unemployment benefits are a maximum of $350 a week for 13 weeks.
There are also three types of federal benefits. One is for people who qualify for state benefits. The others are for people who don’t get state benefits either because they don’t qualify or because they already used up their benefits after a different job loss.
For now, the federal benefits pay $600 a week, although starting in August, they will drop down to the state’s rate — unless Congress changes the law.
When do the federal benefits run out?
All three types of federal benefits are in place until the end of the year.
Will I have to pay taxes on my benefits?
Unlike the $1,200 stimulus checks that went out for coronavirus relief, unemployment benefits are taxable.
What if my job reopens and wants me back, but I’ve been making more money while unemployed?
Unless you can prove a different reason why you shouldn’t have to return to work, you’ll lose your benefits.
If my job reopens and wants me back but I’m not comfortable returning for health reasons, can I still get unemployment?
Maybe. It depends on your personal health risks. It also depends on whether your employer has done a good enough job with health precautions or is offering remote working options.
You’ll have a stronger case to make with the state unemployment office if you’re 65 or older, or if you have a medical condition that puts you at higher risk from COVID-19. However, even for young and healthy people, there are limited cases in which you could refuse to return to work and still get unemployment benefits.
“If your employer is not following recommended safety standards, then your refusal to return to work may make you eligible for benefits,” the state unemployment office states.
More specific information can be found at https://des.nc.gov/need-help/covid-19-information/returning-work.
If my job reopens and wants me back, but working reduced hours, can I do that and still get unemployment benefits?
Maybe. There’s a chance you could keep receiving benefits at a lower rate. But you could lose your benefits. It depends on how your old and new wages fit into the formula the state uses.
State officials say people shouldn’t try to keep any return to work a secret, since they could be forced to pay back benefits in the future if they do.
Here’s what the unemployment office advises if you get called back to work but at reduced hours: “Continue to file your weekly certifications and report any wages you earn. Remember, you must report wages for the week in which you earned them, not the week in which you are paid.”
Will I qualify for unemployment if I:
- Wasn’t laid off, but quit my job because I got COVID-19 or am caring for a family member with COVID-19?
- Am not working but am on paid sick leave or other paid leave?
It depends. You probably wouldn’t qualify. But you might in some specific cases, like if you are receiving paid leave specifically through a separation package.
- Wasn’t laid off but got furloughed?
Yes. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a new executive order last month that lets people receive unemployment even if they got a severance package as part of their furlough.
- Left my job because they asked me to start working remotely but I didn’t want to?
- Left my job because schools and day care facilities closed and I had to start staying home to look after my child?
I qualified for unemployment because my child’s school was shut down. What’s going to happen this summer, when we hit the date that schools normally would have closed? Will I lose my benefits?
It depends. A spokeswoman for the unemployment office said each case will be reviewed individually: “At the time an individual is no longer out of work as a direct result of COVID-19, then the state must assess whether the individual would continue to receive benefits.”
If I get unemployment benefits, am I in danger of losing my:
- Food stamps?
Possibly. According to a Q&A posted by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, unemployment payments are counted toward eligibility by the Food and Nutrition Service, the federal agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture that oversees food stamps and similar programs. On a related question, the $1,200 stimulus payment will not count as income but could potentially count against people subject to a resource limit.
- Workers’ compensation?
Possibly. If you win a workers’ compensation claim but end up receiving unemployment benefits during a week that you were also due a workers’ comp payment, state law allows for your worker’s comp to be reduced in some circumstances.
- Social Security?
No. People can start taking their Social Security benefits at age 62. In most states they’re allowed to take both Social Security and unemployment at the same time, as long as they qualify for both. According to the AARP, only four states crack down on people taking both types of benefits at the same time. North Carolina isn’t one of them.
- Government-subsidized health insurance?
Possibly. There are various forms of subsidized health insurance options, from Medicaid to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, to the marketplace plans people can buy through the federal Affordable Care Act, often referred to as “Obamacare.” State unemployment benefits count as income toward all of those programs, according to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. But how to count the larger federal unemployment benefits is more complicated. They do count as income for people on ACAmarketplace plans but not for people on Medicaid and CHIP, according to the Georgetown analysis.
I’ve been waiting for weeks. Is that normal?
State officials say that if everything goes smoothly and there are no issues with your claim, you should start receiving benefits within 14 days of filing. However, The News & Observer has reported that some people have been waiting for up to two months for their claims to be resolved.
Many people told us that website glitches or human error caused an initial problem with their application, and then the phone lines have been so overwhelmed that they can’t get in touch with anyone to fix the problem.
But it’s not necessarily just the record-breaking numbers of people calling in and filing for unemployment. Even before coronavirus hit, The Carolina Journal first reported, North Carolina was ranked last in the country at getting benefits paid to people on time.
As of Wednesday, about two-thirds of the 960,000 North Carolinians who had filed for unemployment since March 15 had started receiving benefits, according to state data. Also on Wednesday, Cooper replaced the head of the state unemployment office and vowed that applications would be processed more quickly.
I’m having problems and want politicians to know. How can I reach them?
Many people have reported getting their issues resolved after contacting state legislators to complain, and many legislators have been encouraging their constituents to reach out to them.
If you don’t know who represents you in the General Assembly, go to www.ncleg.gov/FindYourLegislators and either click on the map where you live or enter your address. Then look at both the N.C. House and N.C. Senate to find the people who represent you in the state legislature.
When their name pops up, click on it to go to their bio page. You’ll be able to find their phone number and email address, plus their assistant’s email address.
How does North Carolina compare with other states?
North Carolina has some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation because of cuts the Republican-led legislature made in 2013.
The state’s unemployment fund had a $2 billion deficit following the Great Recession, and those 2013 cuts turned that deficit into a $4 billion budget surplus now. Republican legislative leaders have so far declined to use any of that surplus to increase jobless benefits while the coronavirus pandemic continues, drawing criticism from Democrats.
Most states allow people to remain on unemployment for up to 26 weeks if they can’t find a job. North Carolina cuts it off at 12 weeks — usually. It can go up to 20 weeks, if the unemployment rate is high.
However, the state reexamines the maximum number of weeks just twice a year, in January and July. Under current state law, the upcoming July reassessment will only look at the average unemployment rate for January, February and March — the coronavirus-related job losses won’t factor in until January. So unless the law is changed, the length of time people can receive benefits won’t change till sometime in 2021.