How the Coronavirus Rescue Bill
Boosts Unemployment Benefits

By Lynn Peterson

House and Senate lawmakers approved a bipartisan $2 trillion package of measures aimed at providing relief to businesses and individuals struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was signed into law by President Trump last Friday. This bill includes a major expansion of unemployment benefits.

Since last week Tennessee has received 39,096 claims for unemployment compared to 2,702 the week prior, a 300% spike in unemployment in this state. With a record 3.3 million Americans filing unemployment claims last week, nearly five times the historic weekly high set at the height of the Great Recession, this bill boosts the unemployment benefits available to those most immediately impacted.

Important Information to Share with Employees

This bill will give workers an additional $600 per week in benefits above what they are entitled to receive from their state. In Tennessee, the maximum benefit is $275 per week. With these additional funds, workers could receive $875 per week in unemployment benefits. These increased benefits would continue for the next four (4) months.

The benefits will be distributed by the state unemployment offices who have the option to provide the state and federal contributions in one payment or they may send the new federal benefits separately, but both payments must be sent on the same weekly schedule according to the bill.

This bill will also give federal benefits to workers who have never before been eligible for help. It creates a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for self-employed, part-time, and contract workers who are typically ineligible for benefits. Furthermore, the workers would not have to be actively looking for work to receive these new federal benefits.

Furloughed workers and those in quarantine because they have COVID-19, or fear they have the virus, are also eligible. So are workers who have had to leave their job because they are taking care of someone who is sick or tend to children who are no longer in school or day care because of closings. A worker need not have been employed for a certain number of weeks to receive benefits, and new hires are eligible, as are those who have already exhausted their state unemployment benefits. However, workers who are able to work from home, and those receiving paid sick leave or paid family leave, would not be covered.

The expansion of unemployment insurance is designed to put money quickly and directly into laid-off workers’ pockets in the hopes that they will be able to keep paying their bills and feeding their families and will not be ruined financially by the pandemic.

Many states, including Tennessee, have one week “waiting periods.” This means that the first week a person is unemployed, they get no benefits. The stimulus package pushes states to waive that period by paying the full cost of that week of benefits.

Important Information for Employers

It is unclear how long it will take Tennessee to process new claims as they are flooded with new applications. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development has developed a website with guidance for those affected by COVID-19. On that website employers and employees can find information and forms for a mass layoff, how to apply, and who is eligible.

Employers who are forced to lay off large numbers of workers can expedite their employees’ claims by filing an Employer-Filed Mass Claim. Forms are available at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development website. Employers who do not file this form will have to respond to each individual employee’s claim, which can significantly delay the benefit payment process. Employers should encourage employees to have an active e-mail address and to look for an e-mail so that they can register at where they will complete weekly certifications that they are not currently employed.

Many questions remain about how this stimulus bill will work and how quickly affected workers can expect to receive benefits, but both the state and the federal government recognize the hardship and are working hard to make this process simple, seamless and efficient.

Lynn Peterson, a Lewis Thomason shareholder and a Supreme Court Rule 31 Mediator, practices primarily in the personal injury, workers’ compensation, insurance defense, malpractice, employment law, and general litigation areas of law. She has defended civil rights and municipal liability cases in state and Federal court. Ms. Peterson has been a speaker at workers’ compensation and employment law seminars sponsored by lawyers as well as by employers. She has also participated in in-house training for large employers.