If you are laid off from work, if your place of employment closes temporarily, or if your work hours are reduced and you work less than 4 days per week (if you normally work 4 or more days per week), you may be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.  Governor Cuomo has suspended the 7-day waiting period normally required for unemployment benefits, so your eligibility begins on the first day of unemployment.  For the 2020 general election season only, any wages earned by serving as a poll worker at in-person early voting or Election Day voting sites will not count as “work” for the purposes of unemployment benefits.  Unemployment benefit recipients may work as poll workers and continue to receive their benefits.

To find out if you are eligible or to begin filing a claim, you can call the NYS Department of Labor at 1-888-209-8124.  You can also begin filing a claim online at www.labor.ny.gov.  In order to ensure that the systems are not overloaded, new claimants are being asked to space out their filing based on the first letter of their last names.  If the first letter of your last name is A-F, you are asked to file your claim on Monday.  If the first letter of your last name is G-N, you are asked to file your claim on Tuesday.  If the first letter of your last name is O-Z, you are asked to file your claim on Wednesday.  If you missed the day to file based on your last name, you may file on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.  Filing on the correct day will not delay your claim, since all claims are being backdated to the date you lost your job.  Additionally, the work search requirement is being relaxed due to the unavailability of jobs.

As different regions of New York begin to reopen, employers may begin offering laid-off employees the opportunity to return to work.  People who have been advised by a medical professional to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns are eligible to continue receiving unemployment benefits through the Federal expansion of unemployment, which is administered through the NY Department of Labor.  If you are concerned that your underlying health condition may put you at increased risk for COVID when you return to work, please consult your primary medical provider.  Additionally, you may consult your employer regarding their safety plan for employees returning to work.  All employers are required to have a written plan in place to enforce social distancing and keep employees safe from exposure, and must provide that plan to employees upon request.

NYS is aware that many people are unable to file for unemployment due to increased web traffic and phone traffic.  The Department of Labor is processing significantly more unemployment applications during the pandemic than it has ever processed before.  The online system is streamlined to allow individuals to get through it more quickly, and the phone system will be able to handle significantly more traffic.  The web address will remain the same as above.  Further, individuals whose applications are incomplete after going through the online system will no longer have to call the Department of Labor to finish their claim.  A Department of Labor staffer will contact the applicant within 72 business hours to complete the claim.  Note that these calls might come from private or restricted numbers due to the fact that many Department of Labor employees are working from home.  The Department of Labor is also reaching out to claimants via text message and email to inform them of the status of their applications from submission through approval.

Individuals need to certify that they continue to be unemployed but looking for work every week.  Weekly certification must begin when the individual applies for unemployment and must continue while the application is pending.  Failure to certify weekly could delay the approval of the application.  Certification can be done through the Department of Labor’s website.

When applying for unemployment, individuals can elect to receive their benefits on prepaid debit cards issued by Key Bank instead of via direct deposit.  If an individual does not provide direct deposit information or if that information is incorrect, the Department of Labor may choose to issue that individual a Key Bank debit card instead.  Individuals experiencing any issues with these debit cards may contact 866-295-2955.

Importantly, individuals receiving unemployment benefits should be aware that these are considered taxable income.  When applying for unemployment an individual will have the option to deduct taxes from the unemployment benefits or not.  However, if deductions are insufficient to cover that individual’s tax burden, it could result in an individual being required to pay taxes when that individual files their yearly tax return.  Please consult a tax professional if you have questions about deductions from unemployment benefit payments.

Individuals who are denied for unemployment benefits or who need additional legal assistance applying for these benefits can access employment attorneys free of charge for assistance.  Please visit  https://nysba.org/unemployment-insurance-relief/ for more information and to be matched with a pro bono attorney.

The Federal stimulus package has also initiated Pandemic Unemployment Insurance, which extends unemployment to individuals who would not normally qualify for coverage.  These include self-employed workers, independent contractors, individuals not in the workforce whose sole breadwinners passed away due to COVID-19, and “gig economy” workers such as Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Grubhub, and other app-based businesses.  These individuals should apply for unemployment benefits through the New York State Department of Labor using the above instructions.  The CARES Act additional $600 weekly unemployment insurance benefit has expired, but New York is providing individuals with an additional $300 weekly benefit in addition to their normal unemployment benefits.  There is not guidance available on how long the $300 weekly benefit will be available.

New York State has launched a series of online job training courses and certificate programs in conjunction with Coursera in order to help New York residents train for in-demand jobs.  This catalog of nearly 4,000 course offerings includes training in high-demand fields such as health care and technology, among others.  This program is available free of charge to all New Yorkers.  For more information and to obtain login credentials for the training courses, please visit https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-launches-free-online-platform-new-yorkers-learn-new-job-skills-earn-certificates .