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Unemployed in Washington? Top money questions answered

We answer some of your top questions about money during the coronavirus crisis as millions deal with the financial fallout of the pandemic.

Millions of Americans are dealing with the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, including applying for unemployment benefits.

Here are answers to some of the top questions our reporters and producers have received from viewers writing in to our new email, money@king5.com.

Additional unemployment benefits 

Q: “Do all PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) recipients lose benefits after December 26th even if we received less than the 39 weeks of assistance?" - Lisa

A: If you remember, there were new benefits under the CARES Act, which included the PUA and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC).

One is a program for people who normally would not qualify for unemployment like gig workers, and another gave an extra 13 weeks of benefits. Both programs were created under the CARES Act in March and say no benefits under either program can be paid out after December 26, 2020. This will impact millions of Americans, and roughly 170,000 Washington residents, according to the Unemployment Law Project.

A lot of KING 5 viewers have asked a question similar to Lisa’s, so what can you do? The best answer, for now, is that we’ve got to wait and see if Congress acts to extend the benefits.

Applying for paid leave vs unemployment 

Q: "My husband was diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer. He was forced to quit his job as a driver. I have filed his claim. We submitted documentation. Unemployment has yet to issue him any form of payment." – Julie

A: Michelle Li spoke with the Employment Security Department about several of these cases, and it turns out they need to be asking for paid leave not unemployment, even if they've already quit their jobs.

Washington state paid leave is an option you can take when you need to take time off to take care of yourself or your family. You can take medical leave, family leave or even military family leave.

Nearly every Washington worker qualifies for paid leave as long as they work 820 hours, which is about 16 hours a week during the qualifying period, which is typically the last year. Those hours can be from multiple jobs.

An ESD spokesperson said workers who have already left their job can apply for paid leave. The paid leave program is still run by the ESD.

Unemployment job search requirement

Q: "Is the job search requirement suspended until November 9? The job search requirement is currently optional as part of the emergency COVID-19 rules." – Jon

A: With support from lawmakers, Gov. Jay Inslee suspended job search requirements through November 9, which means the earliest you will be required to "actively seek" work is November 15, 2020. This means you can answer "no" to the job search question on your weekly unemployment claims.

Once the job search requirement is back, the state Employment Security Department has made it fairly easy to meet the requirements if you have access to the internet. This includes things like virtual job fairs or even watching a video on how to write a cover letter.

Inslee also indefinitely extended protections for high-risk workers - that's for anyone 65 and older who has an underlying health condition.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance changes

Q: “We’re homeless at the moment. I tried to secure a room for us months ago. I don’t understand why or how the PUA claim is not a go.” - Jay

A: We need a little more information about Jay's situation, but receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is going to require a little more work on the claimant’s end starting August 8, 2020.

PUA is a separate benefit program to help cover people who wouldn’t normally qualify for unemployment benefits, like independent contractors or part-time workers. Now, the U.S. Department of Labor said you’ll be required to fill out a questionnaire to help prove eligibility, and the state Employment Security Department (ESD) said they have to implement them.

These additional questions to the regular weekly questions ask things like if you are unable to work from home because you are a caregiver and if you had to quit your job because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We counted 13 questions in all, and the ESD warned this could change your unemployment status based on your answers.

We should note that you cannot do this by phone. If you file for unemployment by phone, you must tell the ESD where to send the questionnaire because it cannot be added to the automated system. You will still get paid while you are waiting, unless you do not answer the questions at all or if you are found ineligible, then you will owe the state money. The ESD strongly encourages you to do this online instead.

Coronavirus stimulus checks 

Q: “If I claimed my mom on my 2018-2019 taxes as a disabled adult, does she qualify for her own stimulus? And if not, why didn't I receive the $500 dependent money?” - Lehea

A: The first round of coronavirus stimulus checks did not go to adult dependents, nor did they go to people claiming them.

Under the CARES Act, only people who claimed dependents under the age of 17 got the additional $500. Adult dependents, like many college students or in this case, a mother claimed by her daughter, were left out. This left out at least 15 million dependents nationwide.

However, under the Republican-backed stimulus known as the HEALS Act, people would likely get $500 for dependents of all ages. Just like the first round of stimulus checks, that would be added to a $1,200 direct payment for people earning $75,000 or less.

Democrats have wanted to pass the HEROES Act that would give people even more money, but that hasn't had a lot of traction.

While nothing is final, the stimulus payments to Americans in the HEALS Act seems to be the least controversial element of the proposals, so there is a lot of confidence that more dependents will qualify this time around.

Q: “Is it true that neither any total amount of stimulus or EBT care can be counted as income? Will I be required to report it or show bank statements? I live in low-income housing and DSHS said to ask management." – Dee

A: The IRS does not consider coronavirus stimulus money as income, so that means you do not have to report it. The stimulus check is an advance on a 2020 tax credit, and even so, it won’t reduce the amount of your refund. The stimulus money is not taxable and does not count against you, even if you are receiving unemployment benefits.

As for EBT or food assistance, that is also not considered income. On the flipside, collecting unemployment benefits does count as income that could impact your EBT, but that is not what Dee is asking.

Extra $600 a week in unemployment

Q: “Is this week of the last payment with the $600?” – Robin.

A: July 25, 2020, was the last day for the additional $600 in unemployment in Washington state.

That means when Washingtonians file for unemployment, they will be filing for last week’s work, and that will be the last time they’ll receive the extra $600 in benefits. Residents will still receive their regular state unemployment. But, in some cases, some people will be bringing in just $201 a week, which is the minimum amount. The maximum payment is now $844 a week.

Some politicians argue that the extra $600 keeps people from going back to work, while others say it’s a lifeline for those who struggle with taking care of someone else or who are worried about getting sick. If you are waiting to get approved for benefits, you will get back payments that will include the extra $600.

Also, right now you do not have to search for a job while collecting unemployment, but that ends on August 1.

Q: “A lot of people are thinking that the extra $600 a week in unemployment compensation goes through July 31st. Please get the word out that this information is not true.” - James

A: It depends on what state you live in, but in Washington, James is correct. The extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits ends on July 25, 2020.

Under the CARES Act, the extra $600 a week in unemployment is scheduled to end on or before July 31, 2020. Since the July 31 falls on a Friday, and because states typically pay out benefits on a weekly cycle that ends on a Saturday or Sunday, it means that the extra payments will likely end on July 25 or July 26. In Washington, the extra $600 in benefits ends on July 25. That means you will not get the additional $600 for the week of July 26 through Saturday, August 1.

Some experts believe the federal benefits will be extended, but we don’t have any word on that at this time. Once the federal benefits run out, residents will still be eligible for state benefits that max out at $790 a week. However, that is a sharp cut from what people have been getting.

Q: Will we be required to report the extra $600 a week added to unemployment on our 2020 tax return? Because a lot of people will be getting more money with these added payments than they would be working.  – Valory

A: First, the federal stimulus check is not taxable. However, the extra $600 for federal unemployment is taxed, because unemployment money is considered taxable income. Under the CARES Act, unemployment beneficiaries can receive an extra $600 a week from March 29 to July 25, which works out to $10,200 if you max out the benefit.

You can choose to withhold the federal taxes now, and the flat tax rate is 10%. Since there is no state income tax in Washington, that $600 turns into $540. The money also gets reported to the IRS, so you'll get a 1099-G form to fill out for your returns.

And since it is taxable income, it could impact any assistance you receive from the government, like a health subsidy. Medicaid and CHIPS recipients are exempt.

Q: When these extended benefits end, am I eligible to apply again for other extended benefits? There will be no money coming in and no job. I'm in a high risk group for the workplace.

A: Right now it appears there are no extensions to the additional benefits. If you are in need of other resources, here is a helpful list from King County.

Q: I hear I can get an extra $600 per week in unemployment. Do I need to do anything extra to get it, and will it run out?

A: If you get approved for unemployment, the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program under the CARES Act will give you an extra $600 a week between March 29 and July 25, which is on top of state benefits.

No matter when you apply, your pay starts when you lost your job. However, the CARES Act didn't go into effect until late March, so that's as far as you can get retroactive pay for the extra $600.

For the most part, applicants don’t have to do anything for that extra $600 to start coming in. However, if you are already on unemployment and are about to run out of your benefits, you will have to apply to continue getting benefits for an extra 13 weeks, which was another provision under the CARES Act.

"If you are someone who's been claiming unemployment and have exhausted your benefits, you will need to go back into the system and apply for these extension of benefits for an additional 13 weeks,” said Nick Demerice, an Employment Security Department spokesperson. “For most folks who've been affected by the COVID crisis recently and lost their job, this is not an issue yet, but will see down the road.”

That means there's a chance everyone will have to reapply at some point if they run out of their regular benefits before July 25.

Washington state also says funding won't run out. This is not a first-come, first-serve situation like with small business loans.

Unemployment application problems

Q: “I filed my weekly claims, and they all say pending. I have been waiting to get paid since June 20th. It also says pending $0. I do not know why it says $0 when I am supposed to be getting paid more than that for my claims." – Mitchell

A: Pending is usually a good sign, but pending with $0 is a letdown. Mitchell was told he needed to talk with a “Tier 3 Agent,” however, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) isn’t taking incoming calls until July 19. 

KING 5’s Michelle Li decided to go to a panel of people who have dealt with their own unemployment issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them have been paid, but others have been thrown back into limbo.

“I had a pending zero for several weeks while my Identity needed to be verified,” said ESD claimant Melaina Valentine. “So, he might want to look in the pending issues tab to see if there's anything outstanding because that's the only time I've ever seen that.”

“The zeros don't necessarily mean anything and also it matters if you are looking on your phone or on a computer,” explained claimant Dawn Nelson.

Valentine and Nelson are both very active on social media, whether it’s helping people or looking for unemployment answers. Neither of them was expecting it, but they found Facebook has been extremely helpful. Valentine looks at the comments under the ESD posts on Facebook to find her answers, and Nelson uses the “Washington State Unemployment Support Group" on Facebook. The group has more than 15,000 members and has a lot of great resources to help find answers.

Q: I quit my job mid-March because my peers were given the option to telecommute half their work week, but my boss refused to let me. I felt unsafe. I immediately applied for unemployment benefits on March 16th, and I haven't received a cent! Apparently, I am one of the many people stuck in their "adjudication" queues. What about people like me that have been waiting for months? - Aka

A: The timeline for clearing adjudication has changed because of imposter fraud. At one point, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) said it would likely clear claims that were in adjudication before May 1 by the end of June.

Originally, the agency had hoped for mid-June, but then rampant imposter fraud happened. Nonetheless, it has been an ever-changing goal. The big question is, what happens if your claim is resolved and the claim is denied?

The Unemployment Law Project is a nonprofit that helps people with their appeals at no cost. The executive director suggests you ask for an appeal hearing. The issue will likely get resolved before you go before a judge, but if you don't ask for an actual hearing, you may miss an important deadline.

Q: The company that I worked for it laid me off on March 26th because of COVID-19 so when I applied for unemployment benefits, they sent me an email that I’m not eligible for the benefits because I didn’t work at least 680 hours in 2019. What can I do?  – Amir

A: If you first applied before April 18, the short answer is to reapply now, because that’s when the state rolled out additional benefits under the CARES Act. 

Before then, no one received the federal benefits in Washington, because the state hadn't been able to take in applications. It took a while for the state to get federal guidance and update its website. 

People who didn't previously qualify for regular unemployment now do, including independent contractors and those who worked fewer than 680 hours over the previous year. Everyone on unemployment will also get $600 more a week as well.

Eligibility and going back to work 

Q: “My hours have been reduced at work due to the coronavirus and lack of work. I'm working 24 hours a week now instead of 40 hours per week. Can I get unemployment for the 16 hours I no longer am working? And if I qualify for unemployment, do I get the extra $600?" – Denise

A: The short answer here is yes. You can work part-time and still receive unemployment benefits.

Employers who need to stay open but on a less than full-time basis can request a status called "partial" for their workers. However, employees must have been hired to work full-time, they have to return to at least one week of full-time employment within four months, and employees must work 16 hours a week.

But employers also might want to explore something called the "SharedWork Program." The voluntary program helps employers work with the Employment Security Department (ESD), and they must apply to be a part of the program.

Any time an employer reaches out to the ESD, it works with the company to help employees submit claims. The program is cleaner, there is less adjudication when an employee files a claim, and the ESD often does training for the company.

The SharedWork Program is also how state employees are allowed to get paid for being furloughed one day a week, which normally would disqualify an employee from receiving unemployment benefits. Businesses need to know about the shared work program, so you might want to ask your employer if they participate. Big companies like Boeing, Alaska Airlines, and REI utilize this program when they are about to do a major layoff or furlough.

Q: As a self-employed person collecting pandemic unemployment, how are my benefits affected if I am paid for one day of work by a client? – Lori

A: You must report your earnings to the state Employment Security Department (ESD). This could disqualify you from receiving unemployment benefits for the week, or it could make your weekly benefit amount smaller. If you're filing a weekly claim, the ESD will ask if you worked. You have to tell the truth otherwise it is considered fraud. 

Also, you want to report your earnings for the week in which you earned them, not the week you received payment. You should report the amount before deductions. If you are self-employed, then you should report your net earnings to the ESD. You will also be asked for the total hours or days you earned.

You are also supposed to report other earnings like in-kind payments that substitute for money. An example would be free rent for working. Paid vacation, holidays, and sick leave are also considered reportable income.

Q: I am 70 and hypertensive (high-risk category). My weekly unemployment claim just began to include a question of whether I'd done three job searches. I'm wondering if now I'm required for some reason to be doing job searches even though I can't go out until August 1st? - Mike

A: On June 9, Governor Jay Inslee extended protections to high-risk workers until August 1. During this time, people in this category should have a choice of alternative work assignments, like telework. If that's not feasible, they can use their accrued leave or unemployment benefits, and employers are prohibited from permanently replacing them. Seniors older than 65 or anyone with an underlying health condition are categorized as high-risk.

The Employment Security Department (ESD) is easing back into mandatory job search requirements. But as of June 18, the ESD said you do not need to report job search activities until July.  The ESD will share its plan later online and on its social media accounts. When the job search requirements are back in place, the ESD said it would include virtual activities to make it easier for claimants to meet the requirements.

Q: We will go back to work on a part-time basis in mid-June. I am hesitant to go back to work because I am still trying to file and collect unemployment from when we were suddenly shut down. If I go back to work, will it jeopardize my claims process?  – David

A: When you are approved for unemployment, you get paid for the time you were separated from your job. If you go back to work, you should get paid retroactively for the time you were not working.

You can also collect unemployment while working part-time, according to the Washington Employment Security Department. Your benefits will get reduced, but working part-time usually means you can draw benefits longer.

Typically applicants must search for work while collecting unemployment, but that requirement was lifted under COVID-19 rules.

Q: I'm in an at-risk group due to age, asthma, diabetes – not too excited to get out there too soon but don't want to risk losing the ESD check.  – Bill

A: Here’s a broad look at some of the options for people who don't feel comfortable going back to work.

You will likely be denied regular unemployment unless you have good cause for not going back to work during coronavirus recovery. If you cannot telework, good cause includes being at higher risk for COVID- 19 as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, living with or directly caring for a high-risk person or being asked to work at a place that does not follow federal and state guidelines.

If you were denied for regular unemployment, you could still be eligible for the federal benefits. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees can get two weeks of paid sick leave if they had COVID-19 or must care for someone else in quarantine. Parents can take up to 12 weeks of leave if they can't work because their child’s school or day care was closed due to coronavirus.

You may also qualify for short-term disability from your company if you had COVID-19, which could provide 26 weeks off with 60-75% of your income.

Check your eligibility with the U.S. Department of Labor and reach out to your HR department.

Unemployment benefit extensions 

Q: “I was approved for 13 weeks of PEUC after my unemployment benefits were exhausted. When these benefits end, am I eligible to apply again for any other extended benefits?" – Mary

A: The 13 weeks itself was an unemployment benefits extension, paid by the federal government. PEUC stands for "Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.” Aside from that, there are other benefits available.

Under the Extended Benefits program, there is an extra 20 weeks of regular unemployment available in Washington state. In order to receive the additional 20 weeks, you had to have run out of your regular unemployment on May 30, 2020, or later.

You can apply for the extended benefits two weeks before your PEUC runs out. You should get a letter, and the easiest way to apply is through your e-services account. Normally, there are strict job search requirements to get these extended benefits, but right now, you don't have to do the job search due to the pandemic.

RELATED: 'If they are qualified, they'll get it': Unemployment concerns continue during coronavirus

SEE MORE: Your Money, Your Future

Do you have a question or concern about money during the coronavirus pandemic? Email us at money@king5.com.

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