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Laid off because of coronavirus? What you should know about filing for Idaho unemployment

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Idaho unemployment claims have increased dramatically since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the state two weeks ago.

The statewide stay-at-home order issued by Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Wednesday could force “non-essential” businesses to lay off workers or close indefinitely, putting even more Idahoans out of work.

Idaho Department of Labor Director Jani Revier told Boise State Public Radio on Tuesday the department has seen a 1,300% jump in filing. The department won’t release official numbers until Thursday, spokeswoman Georgia Smith said. But 3.3 million people have filed for unemployment around the country, the Associated Press reported.

Despite the increase in claims, Smith says the Idaho Department of Labor’s fund is “very strong and healthy” and is prepared to handle the strain.

“Idaho’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund is currently solvent enough to sustain a recession similar to the Great Recession and has enough in reserves to pay benefits to 162,000 unemployed Idahoans for 12 weeks at an average rate of $375 per week, per claimant,” Smith wrote in an email statement to the Idaho Statesman.

As more Idaho businesses close due to coronavirus concerns and uncertainties, many Idahoans may be wondering if they can or should apply for unemployment.

“The answer is always that you can apply,” said Leah Reeder, an unemployment insurance technical services specialist at the Idaho Department of Labor. “Everyone has the right to apply. That is how we will know if they are eligible for benefits.”

WHO QUALIFIES FOR UNEMPLOYMENT IN IDAHO?

Idahoans who are unemployed or “underemployed” can qualify for unemployment insurance, especially if they lost their jobs because of closures or the economic effect of the coronavirus. Loss of nearly any wage work can trigger eligibility, but applicants should show they are able to work, available for work, actively seeking work and have lost work through no fault of their own.

However, people who are self-employed or part of the gig economy — like freelancers or drivers for Uber and Lyft — usually will not qualify.

“If you are self-employed and not earning wage work, there is no employer paying quarterly taxes,” Reeder said. “There would be no taxes paid on your behalf.”

The Idaho Department of Labor considers the last 18 months of applicants’ work histories when evaluating their claims. If the applicant received wages for another job during that time period, they could still qualify for some funds.

CAN YOU STILL APPLY FOR ASSISTANCE EVEN IF YOUR HOURS WERE JUST SEVERELY CUT?

Yes. “You can absolutely can file for unemployment if you are working reduced hours,” Reeder said.

Many Idahoans in the restaurant industry in particular are in this boat as restaurants cut back on staff hours after cities and now the state has banned dine-in service. Someone who works less than full-time during a calendar week can collect unemployment benefits for that week as long as their gross earnings are not equal to or greater than 1.5 times the weekly benefit amount.

WHAT DO I NEED FOR MY APPLICATION?

Reeder said most delays or problems with applications come from a few common mistakes, especially since so many applicants are laid off directly because of coronavirus and are confused about the process.

When applying online or over the phone, applicants should have, among other things:

  • Two years of work history
  • Direct deposit information (if applicable)
  • Estimated return to work day (if applicable)
  • One common mistake, Reeder said, is applicants saying they are “unable to work” because the restaurant or store of their employer is closed indefinitely because of coronavirus. Instead, that person is considered to be “job-attached” and should receive an estimated return to work day from their employer. Many restaurant employers might say April 16 — the day after Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s stay-at-home order and statewide ban on dine-in restaurant services is scheduled to expire.

If applicants have return to work dates within 16 weeks, they are not required to seek work, Reeder said. However, applicants still have to file the weekly form certifying how many hours they did or didn’t work, and whether they looked for work that week. Failure to fill out the weekly certification could disqualify them.

Reeder said applicants could call with questions, but urged them to thoroughly review the department’s list of frequently asked questions before applying or calling.

HOW MUCH DO I GET IF I QUALIFY? FOR HOW LONG?

In Idaho, weekly unemployment payments range from $72 to $448 and is calculated based on the amount of lost wages. Even if you earned more than $448 a week before you lost your job, you cannot receive more than that amount. However, a lower weekly payment means you could qualify for more weeks of assistance. The Idaho limit is 20 weeks of unemployment assistance.

HOW QUICKLY WILL I GET MY CHECK?

Right now, the Idaho Department of Labor estimates an unemployment recipient with no significant issues with their claim will get their first check at least two-and-a-half weeks after filing. Claimants have until Saturday at midnight of the week they lose work to apply in order for that week to qualify as their “waiting week.”

If the applicant doesn’t have direct deposit, the Idaho Department of Labor will send the check on a debit card, which could take three-and-a-half weeks. The department no longer issues checks.

Reeder encouraged applicants to file as early in the week as possible, so department staff could help them work through any issues with their claim before filing.

If an application has significant issues, it could take up to eight weeks before the claimant receives their first unemployment insurance check.

DO YOU HAVE TO BE A U.S. CITIZEN TO APPLY FOR UNEMPLOYMENT?

No. Legal permanent residents and people with valid work visas may also qualify. The Idaho Department of Labor will verify with immigration officials that applicants were authorized to work in the United States and that their wages were earned legally.

MORE FILING TIPS AND FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

A list of frequently asked questions can be found online at www.labor.idaho.gov or people can call 208-332-8942, either with questions about claims or to apply over the phone. Since the department is receiving an unprecedented number of calls, Reeder recommended people avoid calling on Mondays or between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, when the Idaho Department of Labor tends to receive the highest number of calls.

Despite rounds of layoffs in restaurants and other industries, many Idaho companies are hiring to meet demands. Anyone who needs help finding open jobs in their area Idaho can call their local labor office.

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