In July, the U.S. unemployment rate was 10.2%–an improvement over April-June rates, but a dramatic increase from the beginning of the year. In February, the nationwide unemployment rate was just 3.5%. The decline in unemployment may sound like good news, but let’s put it in perspective: during the first week of August, new claims for unemployment compensation dropped below 1 million for the first time in months–to 963,000. That’s per week, compared with about 213,000 new claims per week in January.
About 30 million people are currently collecting unemployment benefits nationwide.
But, the huge number of Americans who have lost their jobs over the past few months is only part of the problem.
Unemployment by State
The Alabama unemployment rate peaked at 13.8% in April and by June had dropped back to 7.5%. But, that’s still nearly triple the February rate. In June, 165,800 Alabamans were involuntarily unemployed, compared with 59,700 in February. While most Alabama businesses have reopened in stages from late April through July, many still face limitations on hours or capacity. Some have closed their doors permanently. In other words, despite the trend toward improvement, a lot of Alabama residents are out of work–and replacing those jobs will take time.
Some areas have been harder hit. For instance, Montgomery’s June unemployment rate was 9.5%, and Mobile’s 11.5%–more than 50% higher than the state average.
Meanwhile, backlogs at the Department of Labor (ADOL) mean some who have been abruptly thrown out of work are facing delays in securing unemployment compensation. ADOL says staff is working overtime to process claims, but also that it may take up to 8 business days for the department to return a call.
Alabama benefits top out at $275/week. Since the $600/week federal supplement expired, many who are receiving benefits are suddenly without sufficient income to cover basic expenses. And, though the state is still exploring its options, it appears that the minimum state contribution currently required to take advantage of the new supplement being offered by the federal government isn’t in the budget.
ADOL gave two updates on September 14th relating to unemployment benefit programs. Alabama has been approved for a sixth and final week of lost wages assistance payments. The final payments of $300 will be issued this week. Most people received a total of $1800 form the program according to ADOL. These supplemental payments were made available through a FEMA grant. The program was given to bridge the expiration of the payments of $600 weekly from made available through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. The ADOL stated the Extended Benefits program expired over the weekend but benefits would continue through October 3rd. The Extended Benefits program is a federal program that is triggered when a state’s insured unemployment rate goes above 5.9%. Alabama’s insured unemployment rate at the end of May triggered a 13-week Extended Benefits program for the first time since the Great Recession in 2008.
Unemployment in Mississippi reached its pandemic peak in April, at 16.3%. The rate had dropped to 8.7% by June–a marked improvement, but still significantly higher than January-March rates. Unemployment is higher than the state average in some areas, including Jackson.
Mississippi also offers a maximum benefit of $275/week, and has also said the state cannot afford the minimum contribution required to participate in the White House’s supplemental benefits.
The Tennessee unemployment rate in June was 9.7%, down from 15.5% in April. Knoxville, at 8.2%, is faring better than the state average. Still, more than 307,000 Tennessee residents were unemployed at the end of June–the last cycle for which an official count is available.
Tennessee also caps benefits at $275/week, though some additional cash assistance may be available to people who were employed as of March 11 and lost their jobs or more than 50% of their income due to the pandemic. Unlike Alabama and Mississippi, Tennessee appears poised to implement the new federal supplement. But, there’s no word yet on how soon it will take effect. State officials say they’re awaiting instruction from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Questions about the Federal Unemployment Supplement
While states are currently grappling with whether and how they can meet the threshold state payment necessary to trigger the additional $300/week from the federal government, that’s not the only uncertainty surrounding the additional funds. Unlike the original $600/week boost provided by the CARES Act, lawmakers never voted on the new supplement. It was created by an executive order, which some members of Congress and legal experts say exceeds the President’s authority. So, the validity of the additional funding remains in question.
The prospect of an additional stimulus package that might alter the federal contribution, provide an additional stimulus check, or otherwise support states and their unemployed residents is unknown.
Next Steps for the Unemployed
First, don’t despair. As you can see, a lot is still up in the air. But, don’t just wait and hope for the best. If you haven’t yet applied for unemployment benefits, do so. All three states have waived the standard one-week waiting period to help you get benefits faster. But, the application volume and complications associated with implementing additional programs created by the CARES Act mean it may take time to actually receive your benefits.
Timing also counts because some provisions are temporary. For instance, applications close on the additional cash assistance offered in Tennessee later this month.
Make sure to explore all additional assistance that may be available to you. With so many different agencies at different levels of government involved, it can be complicated to sort out your options. Here are a few resources to get you started.
The attorneys at Bond & Botes have been helping people take control of their finances for decades. We know the first step is gathering accurate information, so we offer free, no-obligation consultations. You can schedule yours right now by calling 877-581-3396 or filling out the contact form on this page. We can even connect by phone or video chat.
Gail Hughes Donaldson is a Managing Partner of the Bond & Botes Law Offices in Montgomery and Opelika, Alabama. She holds a Bachelor of Science from Auburn University at Montgomery, and a Juris Doctorate from Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. She’s been helping families work through the bankruptcy process since she started with Bond & Botes back in 1993 as a paralegal. Read her full bio here.