Everything We Know About CARES Act Expanded Unemployment Benefits

More than 22 million Americans have applied for unemployment so far. Photo: Oilvier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

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When Congress passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package to combat the economic crisis created by the coronavirus outbreak, the top-line item was the $1,200 payments that will (eventually) go out to most Americans.

But the crown jewel of the legislation was the expansion of unemployment insurance that will benefit people who’ve lost their work due to the crisis. And there are a lot of those people. Last week, the Labor Department reported another 4.4 million filed for unemployment, bringing the five-week total over 26 million.

After weeks of delay, the extra federal benefits, which are added to the state unemployment payments, began arriving for many Americans in mid-April. Here’s what we know about the expanded benefits created by the CARES Act and what may come next:

Who qualifies for unemployment benefits?

Broadly speaking, anyone who has lost their job, been furloughed, or is unable to work or find work because of the coronavirus crisis. That includes people who leave work due to risk of exposure or to take care of family.

Crucially, the self-employed and independent contractors now qualify for unemployment through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. This temporary, federally funded program allows those who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment to receive benefits during the pandemic. That includes gig workers, such as ride share drivers, who have lost money because no one needs a ride anymore.

How do you file for unemployment benefits?

File online or by phone through your state. You can find out the number or URL at, a website sponsored by the Labor Department. According to MarketWatch, you’ll need to provide personal information along with information on your most recent job. That includes your start and end date, along with details on your wages. Given the sheer number of filers, though, it might be tough to get through.

How much can you get?

The amount varies by state, with most states replacing roughly half of a person’s income, up to a maximum. Each state determines how much people receive based on their prior income and other factors, and some states are far more generous than others. In February, the average payment was $215 in Mississippi and $550 in Massachusetts. Nationwide, the average payment is roughly $385 per week.

The extra $600 from the federal government will be added to that total each week until July 31.

Though the extra benefits are only now making their way to the unemployed, they will be retroactive to March 29. That means the first check some people receive, provided they can show they’ve been unemployed since late March, could be for several thousand dollars.

When will the money arrive?

It depends on where you live. Many Americans have already started to receive the payments after long delays. Some of the delay is due to the inability of states to handle the overwhelming number of filers, both online and by phone. Many states have been forced to adapt antiquated technology to process the new claims.

Connecticut, for example, was forced to update a system that was only able to process payouts in the triple digits. Then there are the dozen states or so that rely in some capacity on COBOL, an outdated programming language that “almost nobody knows,” The Verge reports.

The federal government sent $1 billion to states to improve their unemployment systems, which is reportedly being used to hire more workers and update technology.

Some gig workers, freelancers, and self-employed workers are still waiting to receive benefits as states scramble to build programs that include them. As Vox explained, there’s a reason these payments are taking longer than traditional unemployment: “Unlike simply throwing more money at their existing unemployment insurance programs, many states have had to build new programs from scratch to help freelancers and independent contractors.”

How long do added unemployment benefits last?

The extra federal benefits will be paid through July 31, and the self-employed will be eligible for benefits through the end of 2020. Another provision of the CARES Act provides for an additional 13 weeks of state unemployment benefits after someone has exhausted their regular benefits. In most states, people can only get unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. This makes it 39.

Will the program be extended?

Some lawmakers and activists are arguing it should be. In early April, when the job losses from the outbreak stood at just 17 million, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called for the extra benefits to be extended beyond July 31. For how long? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested extending them through September. The Urban Institute has also called for an extension, arguing that if the benefits end as scheduled, “renters will fall off an income cliff in July, which is also when the federal moratorium on evictions ends for those living in federally financed units.”

Everything We Know About CARES Act Expanded Unemployment