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What workers need to know about unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 emergency

Waiting periods are waived; people lacking child care may qualify; caps lifted for business owners; and more.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz: “This will be the single largest request of unemployment insurance in Minnesota’s history.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order on Monday to tweak Minnesota’s unemployment insurance program in an effort to help people struggling with the closure of schools and businesses because of the novel coronavirus.

The order was the latest in a string of measures taken by the governor to ramp up the state’s response to COVID-19 and push people to avoid crowds and take other health precautions. On Friday, Walz declared a peacetime emergency and warned against large gatherings. By Monday he had closed schools and ordered closures of restaurants, gyms, theaters, museums and more.

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Walz predicted the effect on workers could be profound. “This will be the single largest request of unemployment insurance in Minnesota’s history,” he told reporters.

Unemployment benefits are typically about 50 percent of the average weekly wage of an applicant — up to a maximum of $740. That money “will not make you whole,” Walz said. “But our intention is to try and make sure that it does not destroy your family or the well being that you have.”

Here’s what’s in the governor’s order, and what advice state leaders gave for workers facing a loss of employment or hours.

Commissioner Steve Grove
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Commissioner Steve Grove
A waiting period is waived

The state’s unemployment insurance program, which is administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development, had a week-long waiting period for people to access benefits. Walz’s executive order gets rid of that lag, allowing workers “to become eligible for unemployment benefits as quickly as possible,” the order says.

You may not have to look for employment to get benefits

Normally, to receive unemployment wages, you have to actively look for employment each week. Given concerns about social distancing and self-quarantine due to COVID-19, that requirement doesn’t include jobs that put health and safety at risk. In effect, people who are sick or isolated won’t be forced to apply for jobs that would compromise public health if they worked.

If you are sick, quarantined, or home because of an outbreak at your work, you qualify for unemployment

Unemployment insurance is meant for people who lose work through no fault of their own. Walz’s order specifically says that includes a leave of absence when an employee has been ordered or recommended to stay home or in isolation by health officials or their employer due to COVID-19 concerns. Such a leave may occur “whether or not the applicant has actually contracted a communicable disease.”

If you stay home due to lack of child care, you qualify for unemployment

The executive order says if you can’t go to work because school or child care has been canceled, you can get unemployment insurance. There are some limitations. An applicant must make a reasonable effort to obtain other child care, as well as request time off “or other accommodation” from their employer. If that doesn’t help, then unemployment is an option.

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Businesses get a break

Normally, when a business lays people off, that factors into their future tax bill for the unemployment program. Walz’s order says that benefits paid as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic won’t count against businesses. “We don’t want those businesses to be adversely affected by this crisis,” DEED commissioner Steve Grove told reporters.

Limitation waived for unemployed business owners

The executive order gets rid of a five-week limit on benefits for business owners who become unemployed because of COVID-19.

If you apply for unemployment, do it online

Grove told reporters that DEED has been working to extend hours to handle increased call volumes and applications for unemployment. But he urged people signing up for unemployment to do so through the agency’s website: State call centers are “simply not set up to handle the call volume that we expect to come in based on this executive order,” Grove said. And the lines must be reserved for people who don’t have internet access or who don’t speak English or languages that have translations available on state websites.

DEED fielded more than 4,000 calls on Monday about unemployment insurance, nearly twice its normal number. The insurance website had 90,000 visits — twice the standard Monday number, agency officials said.