Afraid of losing unemployment benefits?
A Q&A discussing current options during the pandemic
June 18, 2020
With the unexpected arrival of a pandemic, thousands of Montanans are out of work. For many, it could be the first time navigating the government’s policy on unemployment or business support funding. The Pathfinder looked to answer questions raised by changes in state and federal unemployment benefits, as well as members of the community. The following questions and answers were researched through the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and The Missoula Job Office. Questions appear in bold followed by the answer.
History of how unemployment works:
Montana originally used one unemployment system. This benefit makes individuals qualify for assistance based on their situation. To get it, one must have made at least $2,900 between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of 2019. Applicants are also screened to see how they became unemployed by adjudicators, who make the final decision. Unemployment funds come from the state and federal taxes, and implemented through the US Department of Labor.
With the emergence of the coronavirus, the federal government passed and signed into law the CARES Act March 27, which alongside $3 trillion in spending added three different faces to unemployment measures.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) - When a person does not qualify for the original unemployment program, whether that is because they did not make $2,900 in the last year, they are self-employed or they planned to work seasonally, they can apply to this program instead.
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) - This program is meant to extend a person’s access to unemployment for up to 13 weeks.
The Federal Pandemic Unemployment compensation (FPUC) - This program adds a flat $600 dollars to the assistance a person is already receiving. As of June 11, the program is set to expire July 25. There is a movement from Washington to expand it through the rest of 2020.
How much has Montana paid out in unemployment? According to the Department of Labor and Industry, between March 30 and May 30, the State of Montana paid out over $458 million in unemployment insurance (UI) benefits including regular UI, PUA, PEUC and FPUC benefits. The amount of weekly recipients has continually dropped since April 18. Between the week of June 1-5, the state sent almost $50 million to 47,000 unemployed individuals. From June 8-12, the state paid out more than $49 million for over 46,000 unemployment payments.
Can unemployed people apply to multiple funds for assistance? It depends. Some funds, like Montana’s housing relief, require a person not to have any other grant for housing. In terms of unemployment, individuals must report all their net income.
If a person does get funding from another source, unemployment should not be affected, but programs a person was already on could be. For example, unemployment funding is counted towards a person’s net income and will affect programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
In a webinar from Accelerate Montana Rural Innovation Initiative on May 18, Kellyann Deniger with the Missoula Job Center said when in doubt still apply for aid because not applying is a 100% chance of no additional support.
What happens if an employer wants to bring their employee back and they refuse because they are making more on unemployment? Workers who are currently on unemployment might be making more than they did while working. According to the Missoula Job Service, individuals do have the ability to work a job while holding down some unemployment benefits. To do so, a person must not be making more than twice their unemployment payment. For example if a person was receiving $200 a week on unemployment (not including the $600 FPUC) then they are able to still collect a portion of their $200 as long as they are not making $400 a week. The major change with the pandemic aid is that if a person still receives at least $1 from unemployment benefits, they will still receive the $600 added on top.
How does a business that received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan affect their employees receiving unemployment? The PPP is meant to help businesses of under 500 employees pay its payroll and cover critical business expenses, according to research by the law firm JacksonLewis. The CARES act originally allotted $349 billion to pull from, and there are talks of the addition of hundreds of billions more. The amount given is supposed to be equal to 250% of the aggregate payroll from 2019 and cannot exceed $10 million.
Employers are expected to keep staff on payroll after they receive the loan, which could disqualify most full time workers from unemployment benefits, including the $600 federal bonus.
Though the money is through a loan, it is structured so businesses do not have to pay it back if they follow certain guidelines. Employers must use no more than 25% of the loan on non-payroll costs. They must also not decrease the net payroll by 25%, whether it be for decreased personnel or employee pay cuts.
By June 30, they are expected to reverse any employment changes, such as layoffs or furloughs, made between Feb. 26 - April 18.
If businesses do not follow all of these guidelines, they are liable to pay back a portion of the PPP loan. For example, if a business has a payroll that is $10,000 lower than its original payroll, it has to pay back the 10,000 it did not pay employees.
What else can businesses do? Alongside the PPP, many federal assistance programs were also expanded by the CARES act. For example the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), which gives out an initial loan of $15,000, as well as a $10,000 grant that doesn’t need to be paid back if used on certain expenses. However, like unemployment benefits, many small business loans do not let a company do both. If an employer gets an EILD and a PPP, then they have to pay back the amount they received in the EILD as a part of the PPP payment.
Are small business owners eligible for unemployment? Sometimes. Small business owners could file for normal unemployment if they worked as a wage earning employee, according to Quickbooks Resource Center. If a person is a sole proprietor of a business, meaning they can control money to and from the business and do not receive paychecks with federal and state taxes taken out, then they are not considered an employee. However, they can file under pandemic assistance as an independent contractor.
Can an employee refuse to come back? How does that affect their unemployment and for what reason? According to the Montana Department of Labor, an employee in the State of Montana cannot stay home out of the basic concern of catching coronavirus. Unless the employee leaves their workplace they cannot qualify for employee sick leave, unemployment benefits or workers compensation. An employer can technically report a person who does not want to return to work because they would lose their unemployment benefits. However, Deniger explained many businesses are hesitant to do this out of concern of losing that employee.
How long will the extra $600 per week continue? As of June 11, the extra $600 is set to expire July 25. There is talk by members of Congress of expanding the fund through 2020.
What are the rules for someone trying to find a job? Before the coronavirus, unemployment recipients had to show the state they were in the job search each week they received benefits. With the pandemic, that requirement was made exempt, according to Missoula Job Service.
Do government information cards about unemployment get mailed to you without requesting them online? No, if you receive this it is a scam. The Montana Department of Labor and Industry will not mail you anything without you contacting them first.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported and prevented over $220 million in unemployment fraud since April 28. Though most have been preventable, $10 million in fraudulent accounts have been paid out. If a person’s info is used, please contact http://uid.dli.mt.gov/report-fraud immediately. Having personal information used in this type of fraud does not affect the ability to use unemployment benefits at a later date.
What is the contact for employers if they have questions? Employees if they have questions? For questions, employers and employees can look online at montanaworks.gov, visit https://www.seeleylakecommunityfoundation.org/ and click on COVID-19 Business Resources or contact Claire Muller at the Seeley Lake Community Foundation at 677-3506 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and she can help connect you with the best contact.