Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, more than 2.1 million people have applied for unemployment compensation in Pennsylvania.

Benefits have changed a few times since then. There was an additional $600 in weekly benefits, provided under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program with money from the CARES Act, which has come and gone, with lawmakers still debating the terms of a new stimulus bill.

Then there was the federal Lost Wages Assistance Program, which provided an extra $300 a week in benefits. The period that program covers ended on Sept. 5, but you can still apply. (If you already did, the money is still coming: You will get a lump sum payment dating back to Aug. 1.)

While the federal programs have changed, Pennsylvania’s normal unemployment benefits remain unaffected, and you can still apply to receive weekly benefits. But the process can be confusing.

So how do you apply for unemployment, and what does the process look like? Here is what you need to know:

Am I eligible for unemployment benefits?

People in Pennsylvania may be eligible to receive unemployment compensation in a number of situations. According to the Office of Unemployment Compensation, those scenarios include:

  • If your employer has closed “temporarily or otherwise” due to COVID-19
  • If your work hours have been reduced because of the coronavirus pandemic
  • If you’ve been told by a health-care provider, doctor, or public official to quarantine or self-isolate
  • If your employer has told you to stay home because they are concerned that you may be at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19

Typically, you can get regular unemployment benefits if you have been laid off or had your hours reduced. However, if you are self-employed or are an independent contractor or gig worker and your work has been affected by the pandemic, you may qualify for compensation under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, even if you’re not otherwise eligible for unemployment.

How do I apply for unemployment benefits?

You can file for unemployment online via the Office of Unemployment Compensation’s website, by telephone at 1-888-313-7284, or by mail with a paper application. If you use American Sign Language, a videophone service is available on Wednesdays from noon to 4 p.m. at 717-704-8474.

To apply, you will need to supply some personal information, including:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your home address (and mailing address if the two are different)
  • Your telephone number and email address
  • Direct deposit bank information, if applicable
  • Information about your most recent employment, including your gross earnings during your last week of employment and your first and last day worked
  • Your employment history for the past 18 months

How much can I receive, and when might it come?

The amount of compensation you can receive is known as your “Weekly Benefit Rate,” and it’s calculated based on your recent earnings. Generally, your benefits should cover about 50% of your full-time weekly wage, capped at $572 per week.

If you are eligible to collect unemployment, you should begin receiving your benefits two to four weeks after filing your claim. Funds will be issued via a debit card from the Unemployment Compensation office, or through direct deposit. You will still need to file a bi-weekly claim to continue receiving money.

Has COVID-19 changed anything about unemployment benefits?

Yes, in a few important ways.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, people filing for unemployment would not get benefits for their first week of unemployment. That has since been suspended, and people who are eligible to receive benefits can now start receiving them right away.

Another change: The work search requirements have been waived. That means that you don’t have to show that you have been looking for a new job in order to continue receiving compensation.

You also get benefits for longer. The amount of time that you can receive unemployment benefits has gone up. Benefits used to stop after 26 weeks; now, the time maxes out at 39 weeks, with an additional 13 weeks of benefits provided under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. That program is designed to provide additional weekly funds to people who have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits.

What if I need help with the process?

Currently, the UC office says online is experiencing “very large call volumes,” and asks that you contact them via email at uchelp@pa.gov. The average email response time for people experiencing issues with their claims is two to four weeks, according to the UC office’s website.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.