If you’re one of the workers who has been affected by the pandemic — say, your employer had to shut down because of Mayor Kenney’s Monday order or you’re in self-quarantine and can’t work — there’s a good chance you’re eligible for unemployment benefits from the state.
The state has seen unemployment claims spike in the last few days. On Monday, it received more than 50,000 claims. (The entire first week of March, it received nearly 12,000 claims.)
Here’s what you need to know about getting the benefits, according to Julia Simon-Mishel, supervising attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s unemployment compensation unit.
It’s a complex issue, so if you still have questions, check out Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s website and tune in to Simon-Mishel’s live Q&A on Friday at 2:30 p.m. on Facebook.
Also: Most Philadelphia workers are covered under the city’s sick leave law, which was recently extended to apply to the current crisis. You may be eligible for paid sick days, even if you’re not actually sick but, for instance, are taking care of a child whose school has closed.
I’m out of work during the pandemic. How do I apply for unemployment?
File an unemployment claim online. Only do it by phone (888-313-7284) if the online form won’t work; it will likely take a long time to get through.
Don’t wait. File it as soon as you find out that you’re not going to be able to work.
If your workplace was shut down because of the crisis, report your reason as “lack of work.”
Am I eligible?
You’re likely eligible if anything about the coronavirus crisis has stopped you from working, Simon-Mishel said.
That could mean:
Your employer cut your hours.
Your employer has temporarily shut down.
You quit your job because your employer was requiring you to work but you believed that it was unsafe. You must have tried to keep your job, though, which means that you need to bring up your concerns with your supervisor. Simon-Mishel advises putting it in writing.
You were fired because your employer was requiring you to work and you believed that it was unsafe.
You can’t get to work because public transportation is shut down.
If your hours have gone down to zero but you are not officially laid off, mark yourself as “still employed" and then you can show how your hours have disappeared. You should not be denied benefits because you have not officially been laid off, Simon-Mishel said.
When it’s deciding whether you are eligible for benefits, the state is checking to make sure that you’re “able and available” to work. There are some coronavirus-specific situations Simon-Mishel’s organization believes shouldn’t hurt your claim, though there isn’t much precedent for them. But as long as you’re able to do some kind of remote work, you should qualify.
Those situations include:
You can’t work because you have to stay home with your child because schools are closed.
You are self-quarantined.
In addition, if you got some paid sick leave or paid time off to cover days you weren’t working but it didn’t cover all the days you’ve been out of work, you can still file. Just make sure to report that you got paid sick leave.
If you get denied, you have 15 days to appeal. The state is strict about that time frame, Simon-Mishel said.
I live in Philly but work in New Jersey. Do I apply to Pennsylvania or New Jersey?
If your only work is in New Jersey, apply in New Jersey. Find more information on these types of claims here.
I’m a gig worker. Can I get unemployment benefits?
Under a new pandemic program, you most likely can. Find more details here.
How much will I get?
The state calculates your benefit based on how much you’ve been making in the last year and a half. It’s never a full wage replacement, but Simon-Mishel said that for a lot of people, it’s a substantial income. The benefit in Pennsylvania ranges from $68 a week to $561 a week.
When will I get my first payment?
After you file your initial claim, you’ll file your first claim two weeks later. You’ll get your first payment that week or the week after, in a best-case scenario. It could take longer because of high demand.
Normally, there’s an extra “waiting week” to get your first payment, but the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry has cut that out because of the crisis.
It comes in a debit card or direct deposit, depending on what you choose.
What do I have to do to keep getting benefits?
You have to file a claim every two weeks, showing that you’re still unemployed and reporting any money you make. Normally, you’d have to prove that you’re looking for work and complete a number of requirements, such as signing up for CareerLink and performing weekly work searches. But because of the current crisis, you do not have to do that.
Be honest when you file your claims. If the state finds out that you lied — “and they will,” Simon-Mishel said — you could have to pay the state back.
You can get up to 26 weeks of benefits.
I’m driving for Uber/cleaning houses/delivering food to make ends meet during the crisis. Will that make me ineligible for benefits?
It shouldn’t. If you’re doing work to hold yourself over during this period and you’re not planning to make that kind of work your full-time job, you should still be eligible for benefits — as per a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision in a case that Simon-Mishel argued. (It’s currently being appealed to the state Supreme Court.)
The problem, Simon-Mishel said, is that the Department of Labor and Industry has been refusing to apply that decision, so it’s been denying claims when people report earning gig wages. “We are hopeful the department will see this as an important opportunity to implement the law,” Simon-Mishel said.
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.