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FAQ City: Your Questions About Unemployment And Stimulus Checks Answered

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We're now more than a month into the coronavirus crisis in North Carolina with still no end in sight, and the number of people out of work continues to climb higher and higher. According to some estimates, the U.S. unemployment rate could touch 16% by July -- higher than at any point since the Great Depression.

On this episode of FAQ City, we tackle questions sent in by you, our listeners, on the topic of government stimulus checks and the expansion of unemployment benefits.

Listen in to the discussion above or read on for answers.

Taxes are usually due on April 15. What's different this year?

The U.S. Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service are changing a few things because of the coronavirus.

First, they've extended the filing deadline, so you now have until July 15 to file your income tax return. But the IRS says if you're expecting a tax refund, you should still try to file as quickly as possible. If you can't make that July 15 deadline, you can request an extension from the IRS.

They've also extended the deadline for paying your federal income taxes to July 15, which applies to individuals, trusts and corporations. You don't have to file any additional forms or call the IRS to qualify.

What's the deal with these checks being promised by the government?

They're called economic impact payments, which you may have also heard called stimulus payments because they're intended to "stimulate" the economy by providing consumers some money with the hope of using it to purchase items and encourage revenues. The last instance of stimulus checks was during the Great Recession of 2008.

Who's eligible for the stimulus checks?

You're eligible if you're a U.S. citizen or resident alien with a valid Social Security number, if you can't be claimed as a dependent of another taxpayer, and if you have an adjusted gross income under certain limits.

Is there anyone who's not eligible?

You likely don't qualify if your adjusted gross income is greater than $99,000 if you're single or married filing separately, greater than $136,000 if you're head of household or $198,000 if married filing jointly.

You also likely won't qualify if you can be claimed as a dependent on someone else's return, if you don't have a valid Social Security number or you're a nonresident alien.

How much are the checks?

It depends on your income. You're eligible for a $1,200 check if you're a single person and make up to $75,000. You're eligible for a $2,400 check if you're married filing jointly and make up to $150,000. If you're married filing jointly, you are also eligible for an additional $500 per qualifying child.

If you make more than this, the payment is reduced by $5 for each $100 above the threshold.

What does someone need to do to make sure they get their check?

Most people who are eligible will receive their checks automatically and don't need to take any additional steps.

If you filed a federal income tax return for 2018 or 2019, if you get Social Security retirement, disability or survivor benefits, or if you receive railroad retirement benefits, you'll get one automatically.

If someone is eligible for a stimulus check but hasn't received one yet, what can they do?

You can check your payment status on irs.gov/coronavirus. That will show you whether it will be a direct deposit or mailed to you.

The IRS says it will mail a letter about the economic impact payment to the taxpayer's last known address within 15 days after the payment is paid. That letter will have instructions on what to do if you didn't get the check. There's information on their website about that, too.

Remember, the IRS will not call, text, email or reach out on social media asking for your personal or bank account information, even related to these payments. So watch out for scammers.

Turning to unemployment questions, what should someone do if they've lost their job because of the coronavirus?

To get unemployment insurance benefits, you need to file a claim with the unemployment insurance program in the state where you worked. Right now, in North Carolina, you have to do that online or over the phone. And you'll need to have information ready like the addresses of your previous employers and the dates you worked there.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order that changed some things about applying for unemployment. What were those changes?

The executive order changed a couple of things for people who lost their job, had their work hours reduced or were prevented from working due to the coronavirus.

First: Normally you do not get paid for your first week of your unemployment claim, but that one-week waiting period has been eliminated for people filing because of the coronavirus.

Second: It gets rid of the work-search requirement. So you don't have to be looking for a job to be eligible for unemployment if you're filing during the state of emergency.

What about Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation? What is that?

The North Carolina Division of Employment Security has three possible unemployment benefits programs.

The first one, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, gives an additional $600 in weekly unemployment insurance benefits from the federal government to people already receiving benefits from the state.

The second, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, provides unemployment compensation for people not eligible for regular unemployment insurance or any extensions.

The final program, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, gives up to 13 additional weeks of benefits for those who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits.

If I'm an independent contractor, am I eligible for these coronavirus unemployment benefits? And what if I'm self-employed? (Submitted by Joanne.)

We called up Chuck Monteith for help answering this one. He's an employment lawyer and spent 25 years working for the Employment Security Commission.

Remember the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — or PUA — we mentioned in the last question? Monteith says that the program could help people who are gig workers, independent contractors and people who are self-employed.

Does the rule that you have to make $6,000 in two quarters still stand? I work part-time and made $4,000 last year. (Submitted by Christine.)

Monteith says to be able to establish a claim for unemployment insurance benefits, a person has to have been paid wages during at least two calendar quarters of what's called their "base period." He says that's typically the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters. And Monteith says a person must have been paid at least $780 during one of the last two completed calendar quarters of their base period.

And remember from the last question, Monteith says the PUA program is available to people who didn't have enough wages for a regular unemployment claim.

"That Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will last through the end of the year," he says, "And that's at $600 a week. So even if a person doesn't meet the threshold for the other benefits, they should be able to get pandemic unemployment assistance."

Are people who are laid off because of the coronavirus eligible for 100% of their regular pay? (Submitted by Jeff.)

Monteith says no. That's not how it works in North Carolina.

"They will be eligible for a maximum of $950. (That's) $350 from the state -- and that's the max -- and $600 from the federal government," he says. "You weekly benefit amount under the state depends on how much you made. And the more money you made, the more likely you are to qualify for the maximum amount. But you don't get compensated dollar for dollar for your loss of pay."

I've been trying to call the state about unemployment benefits but I haven't gotten an answer and the website won't let me file a claim. (Submitted by Kaeyln.)

Monteith says he knows it's frustrating. The Division of Employment Security has been working to hire more people to deal with the spike in people applying for benefits. He says it's not just in North Carolina. All of the states are struggling with this. His advice is to just keep trying until you can get someone on the phone.

What if someone leaves work or quits because they're worried about being exposed to or infected with COVID-19? Can they apply for unemployment? (Submitted by Larry and John.)

"That's a little tricky," Monteith says, "It depends. It would help the person have a better chance of receiving those benefits if they had some sort of medical documentation recommending that they leave because of the threat to their health. I think it's going to take more than just a person saying, 'I was nervous about going into work.'"

However, Monteith also says employers have an incentive to characterize the reason the person is out of work as because of COVID-19, because then the employer has zero responsibility for paying the unemployment benefits.

I was laid off because of the coronavirus. Do I still need to look for a job to get unemployment benefits? (Submitted by Darlene.)

Under Gov. Cooper's executive order, if the Division of Employment Security finds that you are out of work due to COVID-19, they're essentially waiving the work requirement, so you wouldn't have to be looking for a job to get unemployment.

What if you're a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy? Can you file for unemployment benefits? (Submitted by Ana.)

Monteith says to be eligible for unemployment in North Carolina, you have to be legally authorized to work, which some DACA recipients are.

What if you were hired just prior to the virus and now might be laid off and don't have two years of work history to file for unemployment? What can you do? (Submitted by Jessica.)

Monteith says you don't need two years of work history to qualify for benefits, but he says you do need some, like more than just a couple of weeks or a couple of months.

"If you have what they call a short work history, those individuals I think will qualify for what we were talking about before, the pandemic unemployment assistance which is out there for people — independent contractors, gig workers," he says. "They should be able to get that, I believe."

What if you have previously received unemployment benefits after being laid off and now have been laid off again because of COVID-19? It looks like I'm not eligible to apply for unemployment because my benefits have run out. Is that true? (Submitted by Brian.)

"If you've exhausted your 12 weeks and you're still within that year from when you first filed," Monteith says, "you should be eligible to get the pandemic unemployment compensation, which would be the $350 a week if that's what you get from the state, plus the $600 from the feds."

What if you have both a full-time and part-time job and get laid off from your part-time job because of the virus? Can you apply for unemployment? (Submitted by Edie.)

Monteith says it depends how much money you're making from your part-time and full-time jobs because you could make too much to apply for unemployment benefits. He says you'd be more likely to receive benefits if you lost your full-time job.

Do you have more questions about the coronavirus, or anything else related to the Charlotte area? Share it with us in the box below. The WFAE newsroom is continuing to report on how the virus is impacting the Charlotte region, and your questions and story ideas keep us going.

Keep up with future FAQ City episodes by subscribing to the podcast on Apple PodcastsNPR One, or Google Play.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.
Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. He work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal