Hepler Broom, LLC Logo

Tackling COVID-19 in the Workplace: Expanded Unemployment Eligibility and Benefits under the CARES Act are Just What the Doctor Ordered

by Jesse J. Gray

Health experts have explained the need to “flatten the curve” through mandatory and voluntary social isolation. These painful yet necessary efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic have sparked a crisis in employment which is on course to surpass even the worst days of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Nationwide, millions have been laid off within a very short period. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment the week of March 16, a tremendous jump from the previous week’s 282,000 unemployment claims, and an overall record in U.S. history.[1]

Unemployment claims in Missouri and Illinois have followed this national trend, with unemployment claims in Missouri jumping tenfold to 42,207 from approximately 4,000 on the prior week, and claims in Illinois also jumping over tenfold to 114,663 from 10,870 on the prior week. State unemployment offices are struggling to meet this sudden administrative burden, with reports of crashing websites and swamped phone lines.[2] Given the processing hurdles, some experts are cautioning that even these dramatically elevated unemployment claims figures may be an undercount.[3]

Fortunately, policymakers were quick to grasp the challenges COVID-19 presents to employers and employees. In recent days, the Federal Reserve has promised “unlimited” support for the U.S. economy. On March 27, the third and largest coronavirus relief bill to date – The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (aka “CARES” Act) – was entered into law.[4] The crux of the CARES Act lies in its provisions addressing the employment crisis. Title I, the “Keeping American Workers Paid and Employed Act,” is specifically designed to help employers keep more workers employed to at least a 75% of “norm” level. For laid-off employees, Title II, the “Assistance for American Workers, Families, and Businesses Act,” includes a $260 billion expansion of unemployment insurance benefits:

  • The Act will extend the standard period of jobless insurance eligibility provided under existing state law by 13 weeks, up to a period not to exceed 39 weeks. CARES Act, Sec. 2102(b)(2).
  • The Act will boost unemployment benefits by $600/month, on top of state benefits, for a period of up to four months. Thereafter, standard state benefits would apply. CARES Act, Sec. 2104(b)(1)(A)-(B).
  • The Act encompasses far more workers than are usually eligible for unemployment benefits, including furloughed employees, the self-employed, freelancers, gig economy workers, and part-time workers. It also makes eligible those who voluntarily quit their job or are otherwise unable to work “as a direct result of COVID-19” for a variety of coronavirus-related reasons. CARES Act, Sec. 2102(a)(3)(A)(ii)(I)-(II). The Act excludes those who are able to telework for pay or are receiving paid sick leave. CARES Act, Sec. 2102(a)(3)(B)(i)-(ii).
  • The expanded benefits would last through December 31, 2020.
  • The bottom-line: Those who are unemployed, laid-off, on reduced hours, or cannot work for a variety of COVID-19-related reasons are more likely to receive benefits.[5]

COVID-19 has already impacted the U.S. economy in ways never seen before. Some observers are already beginning to question whether Congress’s massive economic relief bill is generous enough in light of the challenges COVID-19 will pose over the coming months.[6]

If the employment crisis endures, then we may see additional legislation targeted to address these evolving challenges. Some states have already taken additional action on this front, including Illinois Gov. Pritzker's announcement on March 11 of emergency IDES rules. The Illinois changes include a waiver of the requirement the claimant be “actively looking for work,” provided the laid-off employee can merely demonstrate readiness to return to work as soon as their employer re-opens, and a waiver of the 7-day waiting period to apply for benefits.[7] In Missouri, some are calling for increased benefits at the state level.[8]

The COVID-19 epidemic underscores the ever-present imperative to put health and safety first in the workplace, even when the cost is great. Workplace safety is in everyone’s self-interest, and employers and employees are not adversaries in the society-wide battle against this new virus. We should keep in mind that employees laid off in the midst of this crisis are not necessarily lazy. Similarly, employers faced with no option but to lay off employees because of decreased revenue or lack of available work are not necessarily callous or evil. While our economy finds its footing again, expanded unemployment insurance eligibility and beefed-up benefits will provide both employees and employers the flexibility to respond to this crisis while meeting their financial needs.

[1] https://www.dol.gov/ui/data.pdf

[2] https://www.stltoday.com/business/local/mirroring-nation-missouri-illinois-unemployment-claims-skyrocket/article_c64c4154-4209-527c-abd5-f46aab206c13.html.

[3] https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/26/record-breaking-unemployment-claims-may-be-vast-undercount-150417

[4] https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hr748/BILLS-116hr748enr.pdf

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/26/coronavirus-relief-bill-what-to-know-about-unemployment-benefits.html

[6] https://www.stltoday.com/business/columns/david-nicklaus/nicklaus-trillion-is-an-unprecedented-amount-of-stimulus-it-also/article_19e675aa-632f-577d-978a-f7996161cbe4.html

[7] https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-illinois-department-of-employment-23240/

[8] https://www.stltoday.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-bolster-missouri-s-unemployment-system-for-the-pandemic-s/article_e6c5f31b-4e86-54bc-b955-b0c51a9faf28.html

Download PDF

Proven Lawyers in the Right Places - We will Survive COVID-19 - Before, During, and After

HeplerBroom LLC COVID-19 Response

HeplerBroom has been diligently working on its response and continuity plan to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to keep the health and safety of our employees, their families, and our clients as our top priority.

To help ensure everyone’s continued health and well-being, effective March 17, 2020, all attorneys and staff began working remotely. We continue to assess the situation and will return to our physical offices when appropriate.

To ensure this, the firm has identified essential personnel in each office who will make certain that critical firm functions that cannot be done remotely continue to be handled. We have put in place protocol for those essential personnel to make sure they are keeping healthy per the CDC cleaning and sanitizing recommendations. All teams have back-up personnel and procedures that we will follow to make sure all deadlines are met and clients receive the same great service and work product that we have always been proud to provide.

HeplerBroom’s IT department has been working hard to make sure all remote employees are set up with equipment and access from home to limit disruption to our clients. Maintaining security and confidentiality has remained, and will continue to remain, at the forefront of all processes and procedures, at all levels throughout the firm.

The firm has created emergency communication measures to communicate any changes to this plan to employees and are communicating on a regular basis with any and all new resources and helpful information during this uncertain time.

During these fluid and unpredictable times, HeplerBroom will continue its commitment to great service and results for our clients, all while keeping safe and healthy.

Wishing you and your families good health.

Read More >