For many of us, dealing with the new realities created by the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Practically overnight, we’ve seen schools and businesses close indefinitely, jobs put on hold or changed dramatically, the stock market plummet, and of course the rising number of American infected with the virus itself.
While we practice social distancing and follow the news about vaccines and orders to shelter in place, most of us are also wondering how all of this will affect us financially. Whether you’re working from home while caring for children, unable to work because of the nature of your job or lack of childcare, or concerned about missing work due to illness, you’re not alone in wondering if or how you’ll make ends meet over the coming weeks and months.
That’s why we’ve assembled this list of federal government benefits and programs that could help those struggling financially due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, between these programs, state and local measures, and your own strategies for handling economic hardship, you’ll have a bit more piece of mind during these uncertain times.
Many people have or will take a substantial hit to their income due to coronavirus. For that reason, lawmakers have been working on ways to cushion the blow, including the new, albeit temporary, Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA). Here are a few of the provisions recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump:
- Employers with fewer than 500 employees must provide two weeks (80 hours) of paid leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay (up to $511 per day and $5,110 total) for those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a diagnosis, and for those who are quarantined because of COVID-19 (per a federal, state, or local government order, or doctor’s orders).
- Those caring for someone else who is sick with the disease, and parents dealing with school and childcare closures will be eligible for the two weeks of paid leave at 2/3 of their regular rate of pay (up to $200 per day, $2,000 total).
- Paid leave is prorated for part-time employees based on their average hours worked over a two-week period.
- Employers subject to the requirement will receive tax credits to reimburse them for these costs. Self-employed individuals can receive an equivalent credit.
- Exemptions apply for employers of health care workers.
How to Request Emergency Paid Sick Leave
Contact your supervisor or the HR department to discuss available leave. Under the new law, covered employers must post a conspicuous notice advising employees of their rights under the EPSLA. This notice will be prepared by the Secretary of Labor within seven days of the law’s enactment, which is April 2, 2020. Employers are not allowed to require you to use other leave before EPSLA leave, and they are strictly prohibited from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the law.
Expanded family and medical leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been around for decades and allows eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reason, keeping group health insurance in place as well. Normally, the FMLA only applies to certain employees of public agencies and private sector employers with more than 50 employees, but new laws temporarily expand these protections. Below are some important aspects of the new law:
- The FMLA is expanded to include private sector employers with fewer than 500 employees (although small businesses with fewer than 50 employees can apply for an exemption).
- Eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of “Public Health Emergency Leave” in order to care for a child under 18 whose school or childcare provider closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, if the employee cannot work onsite or through telework.
- Benefits and protections apply to those who have been employed with their employer for at least 30 days.
- Eligible employees can receive paid leave, after the first 10 days of leave, equal to 2/3 of their regular pay rate.
- There is a cap of $200 per day ($10,000 total).
- Exemptions apply for employers of health care workers.
How to Request Public Health Emergency Leave
FMLA leave is requested directly with your employer, and you should notify them of your need to take leave as soon as practicable. They may ask for certain documentation and certifications under normal FMLA rules, although many have relaxed these types of requirements. Lastly, you’re allowed to take — but employers cannot require the use of — other paid time off during your leave.
Increased unemployment insurance
Unemployment benefits are meant to help people who are out of work through no fault of their own by maintaining a portion of their income until they’re able to find work again. Each state handles its own unemployment claims in compliance with federal law, so the U.S. Department of Labor has granted states more flexibility to provide benefits to people affected by COVID-19. The new guidelines allow states to pay benefits where:
- An employer temporarily stops operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from going to work;
- An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over; and
- An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.
Recent legislation provides an additional, federally funded $600 per week to individuals on top of their state benefits. The expiration date for that amount is currently July 31, 2020, although there’s talk of extending it.
How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits
It’s important to note that federal law does not require an employee to quit in order to receive coronavirus-related benefits. However, generally speaking, if someone is receiving paid sick leave or paid family leave, they’re not considered “unemployed,” and cannot receive unemployment benefits. Lastly, while the relief package signed into law last week by President Trump included additional funding for state unemployment departments, you’ll need to check with your state’s unemployment insurance program to see exactly what benefits you qualify for, and how to apply.
Food stamp and nutritional programs
Due to financial hardship and intermittent food and supply shortages at grocery stores, many people are finding it even more difficult to feed their families. In response, lawmakers included a number of provisions in the second coronavirus bill, including:
- Additional funding for WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children)
- Suspension of work requirements for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
- Funding for an emergency food assistance program
- Additional benefits to replace school meals for eligible children
Go to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service website to learn more about applying for benefits.
Other benefits in response to COVID-19
A few other emergency actions taken by Congress and the President include the following:
- Allowing homeowners to reduce or suspend their mortgage payments for up to 12 months. Contact your lender to work out a revised payment plan.
- Giving most federal student loan borrowers the option to suspend their payments without interest until at least September 30, 2020.
- Pushing back the deadline for filing your federal taxes from April 15 to July 15 with no interest or penalties (some states have moved their deadlines as well).
- Assistance programs for small business owners, including low interest loans.
- Expanded Medicaid payments to providers to cover costs attributed to the pandemic.
- Free coronavirus testing and doctor’s visits conducted to determine a diagnosis.
- Be sure to check messages from state and local governments for additional assistance. For instance in California, major banks have committed to work with the state to help homeowners who are struggling to pay the mortgage. The state has also waived a one week waiting period for receiving unemployment benefits.
Of course, states and municipalities are also taking their own steps to respond to financial hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. So, it’s worth checking to see what local measures and benefits might be available to help you as well.
In uncertain times, look for the helpers
In difficult times, look for the helpers – that’s a famous quote from Mr. Fred Rogers. Everyone is doing their part to pitch in and help now, including everyone here at Freedom Debt Relief. We will continue to provide you with information on how to manage your debt and money, so come back to our blogs for more updates.
Editor’s Note, May 21, 2020: This post has been updated to reflect changes in some benefits and the latest information available on the topics included here.