Unemployment Benefits: Expanded Benefits Available under CARES Act

Many Americans are seeing a stimulus check arrive in their bank accounts or mailboxes. This payment is an attempt by the federal government to alleviate some of the financial strain on American workers.  Even with the stimulus check, workers who are currently furloughed, unemployed, or experiencing pay cuts may still be finding it difficult to make ends meet.  So, this is where it is helpful to know that there are more benefits available to workers under the CARES Act.  Specifically, we are going to address unemployment benefits.

Unemployment benefits are not a new thing.  However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it necessary for the government to expand benefits temporarily.  Here are some things you need to know about the expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act.

Recap of CARES Act

First, let’s recap the CARES Act, so that we know the reason for the benefits expansion.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, is the government’s response to the unemployment rates as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The government enacted this set of provisions on March 27, 2020.  The purpose of the act is to provide benefits and financial relief to businesses and individuals during this crisis.  Namely, relief in the form of unemployment benefits for individual workers who became unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  These benefits are called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which are intended to provide temporary relief.

Unemployment Benefits Coverage

Next, it’s important to know who may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.  The good news is that the CARES Act covers quite a wide range of situations.  So, the following circumstances are ways in which an individual may receive coverage:

COVID-19 Diagnosis

This circumstance covers those who are:

  • seeking diagnosis
  • diagnosed with COVID-19
  • caring for a sick family member

Child Care

Unemployment benefits are available to the primary caregiver of a household.  Specifically, if the caregiver is unable to work because that individual has a child whose school or daycare closed due to the COVID-19 health emergency.

Stay-at-Home Orders or Quarantine

If the individual is unable to report to his/her place of business due to a stay-at-home order or quarantine, then the individual may receive unemployment benefits.

New Job Loss

An individual could receive unemployment benefits if he/she was not able to begin work for the first time at a new job as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


If an individual has suddenly become the head of household due to the death of the previous breadwinner, then the individual could be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Photo of a "SORRY WE'RE CLOSED" sign in front of a business, whose employees might need unemployment benefits.
Photo by Chris Panas | Source

Workplace Closure

If an individual must quit or if his/her workplace closes due to COVID-19, the individual may be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Expanded Unemployment Benefits

Now, there are line items within the CARES Act that were in existence prior to the crisis.  However, the federal government expanded many of these provisions as of March 27.  The reason for this is the government noticed a need for these provisions to be more robust.  Here are some of the expanded unemployment benefits available to employees.

Duration of Unemployment

Funding from the federal government has made it possible for states to cover COVID-19-related issues through unemployment benefits.  Qualified individuals with COVID-19-related issues could be eligible to receive benefits for as many as 39 weeks.

Previously Ineligible Employees

The CARES Act covers workers who typically would not be eligible for unemployment benefits.  This extends to independent contractors, newly-hired workers, and employees with COVID-19-related issues.

Waiting Periods Waived

Timing, which is normally crucial where unemployment benefits are concerned, is still relevant, but in a beneficial way.  The CARES Act is waiving waiting periods, and providing an additional weekly $600 disbursement to individuals who receive benefits prior to July 31, 2020.

Application Process

Employees who are in need of assistance should apply through the unemployment insurance agency in their state of employment.  Benefit determinations are made on a state-by-state basis.  Therefore, it is important for employers also to monitor the Department of Labor websites for additional updates and guidance. 

Implementing Plan B: Seeking Unemployment Benefits

So, while many people had hoped that the stimulus checks would be the answer to the unemployment crisis, the checks are proving to be only a small Band-Aid.  The stay-at-home orders are extending far beyond what anyone expected, and therefore workers need further assistance to afford even the most basic needs.  So, if you haven’t already, consider unemployment benefits as your Plan B.  Specifically, look to the expanded unemployment benefits that the CARES Act provides.  Ideally, these benefits are something you will only need to use for a short period of time.

Image of a worker receiving a life raft in the form of unemployment benefits.

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This is not meant to provide legal counsel or advice. Every situation is different. Please contact an HR professional or employment attorney before taking any action.

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