Explainer: How Unemployment Insurance Is Changing Under The Coronavirus

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The Boomerang thrift store, like many small stores in Central Square, closed before Governor Baker's tenure. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)
The Boomerang thrift store, like many small stores in Central Square, closed before Governor Baker's tenure. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)

En español

The state Department of Unemployment Assistance is scrambling to meet skyrocketing demand for unemployment benefits, bringing in hundreds of workers from other areas as Congress advances a coronavirus law that could expand eligibility to groups not covered under the current system.

Here are some key points to keep in mind as you or people you know try to claim unemployment.

What Has Changed With The Coronavirus?

Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed an array of emergency reforms to the unemployment system, pertaining to people whose work situation is impacted by COVID-19. Those include:

  • Workers quarantined or isolated by employers, health care professionals, or government authorities can qualify for unemployment.
  • Benefits can go to those who stop working due to "reasonable risk of exposure,” or to care for a family member affected by COVID-19, or to care for children whose schools have been closed.
  • Also qualifying are workers on “standby,” whose employers are temporarily closed due to the outbreak, with an expected return-to-work date.
  • Standby claimants must be available for “all hours of suitable work” offered by their employers.
  • Applicants are not being required to attend seminars at MassHire career centers.
  • Deadlines missed due to the effects of COVID-19 may be excused.
  • No longer in effect is the one-week wait period to collect benefits.
This is where the process of filing for unemployment benefits begins.
This is where the process of filing for unemployment benefits begins.

Who Is Ineligible And How Could That Change?

Some nonprofit workers, employees of religious institutions, private contractors, and undocumented immigrants are among those who do not qualify for unemployment benefits under the current system.

But that could be about to change — at least while the pandemic passes through the country. The new $2.2 trillion coronavirus package extends unemployment payments by 13 weeks, and expands eligibility to groups not covered under the traditional system.

Robert Murphy, a professor of economics at Boston College, tells WBUR it could be up to the states to decide whether to cover groups such as undocumented immigrants. And Murphy says under the current crisis, no one should be excluded because of immigration status.

"The last thing we want is people feeling: 'Gee, I really have to figure out how to get [back to work] even though I'm sick, because otherwise I'm not going to have an income," Murphy said.

"Just ensure that everybody is supported, regardless of their immigration status. And then, once this crisis is over, if there's concern about that ... then address it."

Why Am I Not Getting A Callback From Unemployment?

Officials say claims are up nearly 2,000% from pre-pandemic levels, and the department is adding hundreds of staff to help meet demand. Those unable to successfully file online can submit requests for assistance. It's unclear how many of these requests have gone out, but the state's labor secretary says her employees have made 15,000 calls back in recent days.

Amanda Ford, 33, of Rockland, was recently laid off from her job at a travel company — she's been unable to file for unemployment because of a web issue she can't resolve on her own. Ford put in a request for assistance on Monday, and by Friday morning she had yet to hear anything. She says she believes her issue will be sorted out once she's able to speak to someone in the department — it's only a matter of getting that phone call.

State officials say the online system has been able to keep up with demand. They attribute the success to the decision to migrate to a cloud-based system.

But not everyone agrees that the system is working well.

Gladys Vega, executive director of the nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative, says her staff has been working nonstop helping people apply for unemployment, processing about 50 claims a day. Vega says the system often freezes and forces you to start from the beginning, while some claims have been unable to be completed.

"Last week we had a lot of that and it was a bit overwhelming," Vega said, adding that she's even more concerned about what comes next.

"Unemployment benefits are sort of a band-aid to the larger financial problems this country and the world will have after this epidemic stops and people go back to work."

What Are The Hardest Hit Sectors In Massachusetts?

Across the state's economy, the health care and social services sector experienced twice as much trauma as the rest of the economy, with a 4,000% increase in unemployment applications. Next is arts, entertainment, and recreation (2,548%), followed by food and accommodation (2,283%), and retail trade (2,082%). The sector least affected by the coronavirus outbreak is insurance and finance, which saw a 282% increase in initial unemployment claims, and administrative and waste services, which saw a 632% increase.

How Do I Apply For Benefits?

Online: The fastest way to file is online. The state says the system "remains fully operational," despite reports of glitches and difficulty getting support.

In-person: All in-person services at Career Centers and walk-in centers are unavailable. However, individualized help is available for those in need.

By phone: While the Department of Unemployment Assistance strongly encourages online applications, phone service is available Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

  • Call (877) 626-6800 from area codes 351, 413, 508, 774, and 978
  • or (617) 626-6800 from any other area code

Some Additional Unemployment Resources

English guide for applying 
Spanish guide for applying
Additional state resources

This segment aired on March 28, 2020.


Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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