State and federal lawmakers acted recently to expand unemployment benefits just as a tidal wave of layoffs hit the economy.

Last week a historic 3 million people filed for unemployment nationally — some five times more than the worst week in U.S. history. That includes 20,000 Arizona claims, which hit so fast the Department of Economic Services website crashed. In a single week, unemployment filings nationally increased 15-fold.

Even those numbers fail to capture the extent of the unemployment crisis, since it doesn’t include part-time workers and people in the “gig” economy — not normally eligible for unemployment.

The Senate at the last moment adopted a $2 trillion stimulus package, which includes short-term changes in unemployment that will temporarily streamline approvals, boost benefits by $600 a month and extend coverage to part-time and self-employed workers impacted by COVID-19.

The action came with a unanimous Senate vote, although four Republican senators held up approval briefly to complain that the temporary boost in jobless benefits would decrease the incentive for people to find another job.

Supporters of the package argued the benefits will keep people from going bankrupt and losing their homes, while providing an incentive for people to adhere to the social distancing recommendations considered the best chance of slowing the spread of the virus.

The federal package will yield big benefits for the unemployed in Arizona, since the state has the second-smallest jobless benefits in the nation. Arizona caps unemployment at $240 a week for a maximum of 26 weeks. Only Mississippi has a lower cap. Nationally, the cap average is about $400 a week.

Arizona also has the highest prior-earnings cap in the nation — which means you can’t get benefits if you were not making enough money to start with, usually because you were working part time. Arizona’s the only state where someone making $12 an hour for 25 hours a week can’t qualify for benefits if they’re laid off.

The temporary federal unemployment rules will eliminate many of the differences between the low and high benefits states for the next several months.

The stimulus package includes other provisions not linked to job loss, including a $1,200 cash payment to most taxpayers, a $500 billion fund to bail out corporations and a $350 billion fund to provide loans that will turn into grants for small businesses that don’t lay off anyone — or quickly rehire those they do.

Below are some of the enhanced unemployment benefits of the package now expected to sail through the House:

  • Self-employed and part-time workers could qualify for benefits if they lost work because of required social isolation measures, illness, quarantine of shelter-in-place orders.
  • This means the maximum weekly benefit for the next two months in Arizona would rise to $840 – which works out to about $42,000 annually.
  • Gig workers – like Uber drivers – would also be eligible for the $600 weekly benefit, on top of a formula based on their prior earnings.
  • Part-time workers could also qualify for the $600 weekly benefit, with the duration dependent on state rules.
  • People diagnosed with COVID-19 or caring for a family member with the illness could also qualify for the unemployment benefit. So would people advised by their doctor to self-quarantine or people affected by a “shelter in place” order, like the one currently in effect on the Navajo Reservation.
  • People might also qualify if they had to stop working because the school or daycare facility taking care of their kids was ordered shut down.
  • People who quit their job because of a quarantine or medical situation would qualify for unemployment benefits – but not people who quit work because they didn’t want to risk exposure in a workplace that remains open.
  • If the breadwinner of a household dies because of COVID-19, surviving, non-working members of that household could qualify for benefits.
  • Workers would get an extra $600 a week on top of the state benefit, which usually provides between 25% and 45% of the full-time wage up to a cap certain. The maximum weekly benefit now ranges from about $240 in Arizona to about $681 in New Jersey.
  • The expanded benefits would not cover those able to work from home, those on paid sick leave or family leave and people who were not working before the virus hit even if they now cannot find jobs.
  • The new benefits would last for 13 weeks beyond the current state limit. In Arizona, that would provide 39 weeks of coverage – about four months. Expanded coverage would apply to people who qualify between Jan. 27 and Dec. 31.
  • People who have already exhausted their unemployment benefits after hitting the 26-week limit could reapply and get the expanded benefit for an additional 13 weeks.
  • The package includes incentives for states to waive the one-week waiting period for benefits, but the deluge of people applying for benefits now could delay the start of payments, depending on the state.
  • Receipt of the benefits could affect eligibility for other programs, like food stamps, but not eligibility for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

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