The United States does not have a single nationwide system for getting unemployment benefits to jobless workers because this is controlled at the state level. Because state rules vary so much, the share of people the government counts as unemployed who actually receive unemployment benefits varies too. Under the CARES Act, all states are allowed to provide up to 13 additional weeks of federally funded extended unemployment insurance benefits to people who exhaust their regular state benefits. Under the Act, through the end of this year, people who exhaust both regular and extended benefits, and many others who have lost their jobs for reasons arising from the pandemic but who are not normally eligible for unemployment insurance in their state, are eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. People can receive a maximum of 39 weeks of benefits this year from all three sources combined. The standard maximum for most states is 26 weeks with the exception of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Kansas, Missouri and Idaho whose maximums vary from 12 to 21 weeks.1 These states should expand access to unemployment insurance so that all workers impacted by COVID-19 in 2020 can receive the maximum benefits under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). This should include self-employed and gig workers eligible for FPUC benefits.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allows states to modify their unemployment compensation laws and policies to better address the labor market impacts of the coronavirus. Unemployment insurance programs in the South need to be turbocharged given the millions of jobs at stake and the billions of dollars of potential lost wages and salaries. This is particularly urgent since a number of southern states have led to the steepest decline in unemployed workers accessing unemployment insurance in the years since the Great Recession, by cutting benefit amounts and imposing significant barriers to access.2 The Economic Policy Institute recommends southern state policymakers should expand access by increasing funding for administering unemployment insurance, lowering weekly earning requirements to include all low-wage workers, and eliminating work search requirements and waiting periods. They should also strengthen benefits by increasing the percentage of lost wages replaced and extending the duration of unemployment insurance to at least 26 weeks.3 Implementing or expanding work share programs as part of the unemployment insurance program can serve to minimize wage loss caused by unemployment and preserve existing employee-employer matches. State policymakers should address the increasing number of unemployment claims by dropping the existing requirements for minimum earnings and the one-week waiting period to receive benefits so that a greater share of covered workers can claim unemployment compensation. Additionally, states may broaden unemployment insurance coverage to non-covered workers.4