Unemployment claims spike as Virginia expands eligibility amid COVID-19 outbreak

Unemployment claims spike as Virginia expands eligibility amid COVID-19 outbreak
Gov. Ralph Northam, pictured Tuesday, has been holding daily briefings on the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia and the state's response. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With businesses around the state shutting down and cutting hours to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration says it’s dramatically expanding the state’s unemployment insurance program to get money to more workers idled by the pandemic.

“We know rent and other bills won’t wait,” he said during a news conference this week. “If individuals are out of work because of what we’re mandating, unemployment benefits will be allowed to them.”

Thousands of workers have already signed up. The state received 2,150 online applications on Tuesday, up from 426 on Monday, according to Northam’s administration. The figures do not include applications processed by phone. Last year, the state averaged about 65 claims a day.

Here’s what you need to know about the new eligibility rules and how Northam’s administration says it will apply them:

New rules

The program is typically limited to workers who are laid off or have their hours reduced—a category many workers affected by COVID-19-related closures already meet. But Northam’s administration says they’ve directed the Virginia Employment Commission to also approve applications that would typically be rejected from workers who are out of work because they’re:

• quarantined, either on their own initiative or at the direction of a medical official,

• caring for a family member who is ill or under quarantine,

• caring for a child whose school or day care was closed.

Northam’s administration says that they’ll err on the side of providing benefits.

“If you’re scared and quarantined for any reason, then you’re going to get unemployment insurance benefits,” said Megan Healy, Northam’s chief workforce development adviser. “If you’re young and think you (are sick and) should self-quarantine, you should be able to get unemployment benefits.”

The state is also dropping work-search requirements for affected employees, meaning workers won’t be required to visit at least two businesses a week in search of employment to maintain their eligibility.

They’ve also eliminated a one-week waiting period for benefits, during which unemployed workers are not typically paid.

The state says businesses, which pay for unemployment insurance through payroll taxes and can see their assessments go up when their former workers sign up, will not be penalized for any coronavirus-related spikes.

The Virginia Mercury is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.