High school and college students whose summer jobs fell through because of the pandemic may qualify for jobless benefits under a special federal program. But getting the funds is harder in some states than in others.

Traditional unemployment insurance — a joint federal-state program funded by taxes on employers — usually leaves out students. But young people may be eligible for financial relief through the federal pandemic unemployment assistance program if they are out of work because of the coronavirus, employment experts say.

Many students are unaware that they may qualify for the special benefits if they can’t work or have lost a job because of the outbreak, said Jennifer Mishory, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public policy research group.

Unemployment insurance partly replaces wages for workers who lose jobs through no fault of their own. The federal government sets basic guidelines, but states administer the programs and set many of their own rules, which often exclude students.

Teenagers who lose their jobs often haven’t worked long enough or earned enough money to meet minimum requirements for collecting traditional jobless benefits, Mishory said. About 20 states generally disqualify part-time workers, whether or not they are students, and about half of the states have restrictions specifically aimed at students.

The rules are different, however, under the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which temporarily expanded eligibility to people who typically don’t qualify for regular jobless benefits — like self-employed people, those with limited work histories and part-time workers.

The program “created a whole new set of eligibility across all states,” said David Pryzbylski, a labor and employment lawyer at Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis.

And in April, the federal Labor Department clarified that full-time students working part time may qualify for jobless benefits during the pandemic if they meet certain requirements.

Many of the requirements refer to having a coronavirus diagnosis or caring for a family member who falls ill, but people may also qualify if their workplace closed because of the pandemic or if they were scheduled to start work but can’t as a “direct” result of the virus.

So a student who had a job lined up for the summer — whether as a lifeguard at a pool that didn’t open or as a counselor at a summer camp that closed because of the virus — may be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pryzbylski said.

“Presumably if they had a bona fide offer of employment that was rescinded because of COVID-19, they should be able to qualify,” Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, said in an email.

States administer the pandemic program, however, and some are more assertive than others in making people aware of the expanded eligibility. Some states, including California, Maine and Alaska, mention on their labor department websites that students may be eligible for payments under the program. Other states don’t specifically address the status of students, which may lead students to conclude they do not qualify.

And at least one state is barring students from the special coverage. Minnesota has relied on a 1939 law that prohibits high school students from getting benefits to bar them from collecting under the pandemic program as well, said Marcus Pope, vice president for Youthprise, a nonprofit youth advocacy organization in Minneapolis.

Here are some questions and answers about unemployment insurance for students: 

Q: How do I apply for unemployment insurance benefits if I’m a student?

You can typically apply online, through your state’s unemployment office. Check the website of your state’s labor or employment department for details. Each state has its own process; some may require separate applications for regular benefits and pandemic relief benefits. 

Q: What if I’m unsure if I qualify for the expanded jobless benefits?

There’s no harm in applying for benefits to see if you qualify, as long as you are truthful on the application, said Victorine Froehlich, a lawyer who participates in the New York State Bar Association’s volunteer unemployment insurance initiative. The program offers free help to New Yorkers seeking jobless benefits during the pandemic.

Keep in mind, however, that qualifying may be tricky if your job loss isn’t a “direct” result of the virus. If the job loss is considered to have occurred because of the broader economic downturn, you could be found ineligible, depending on the state’s interpretation of the situation, Mishory said. “It’s complicated.” 

Q: How much money could a student collect in jobless benefits?

The amount depends on your circumstances and the state where you claim benefits, but it could be significant. The expanded federal unemployment program pays a weekly benefit of $600 on top of a partial wage replacement of at least half of a state’s average weekly unemployment benefit — about $190 a week nationally, according to the National Employment Law Project, although it varies widely by state. That could mean payments of almost $800 a week.

The benefits can be retroactive to Jan. 27 or to the date the job was expected to begin. The weekly $600 payments, however, apply only to weeks of unemployment from April 5 through late July, unless Congress passes legislation to extend them.

And while the pandemic benefits can run for up to 39 weeks, students can collect just for the period when they expected to be employed, Pryzbylski said. For example, if your job at a shuttered summer camp was to have run for eight weeks, that’s the amount of time you could claim.


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