$300 Unemployment Benefit: Who Will Get It and When?

President Trump’s stopgap program to get more money to the jobless is off to a slow start. Here’s how it works.

People waiting for help with unemployment claims in Tulsa, Okla., last month.
People waiting for help with unemployment claims in Tulsa, Okla., last month.Credit...Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

Two weeks have passed since President Trump announced that he would sidestep a congressional stalemate to deliver $400 in extra weekly benefits to tens of millions of unemployed Americans — a short-term fix meant to replace the $600-a-week emergency federal supplement that expired last month.

Since then, as more details of the plan — known as Lost Wages Assistance — have emerged, so have problems with finding the funding and getting it to the hands of those who need it. What is now clear is that the federal supplement is $300, not $400, a week. And by Thursday, only one state, Arizona, had started paying out.

Here is what we know.

Mr. Trump is using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which normally provides disaster relief. The additional $100 was supposed to be supplied by states, but most are struggling to meet other expenses. Tax revenues have been sinking at the same time that costs — like precautions to curb the spread of the coronavirus — have soared. Ultimately the administration said the states’ basic benefit payments could be counted toward their $100 share.

Montana is the only state so far to choose the $400 option, according to FEMA.

Only people who qualify to receive at least $100 in unemployment benefits each week — either through the regular state program or a federal pandemic assistance program — are eligible for the extra federal funds.

ImageEmpty storefronts and light foot traffic on the Upper East Side of Manhattan underscore the pandemic’s economic toll and challenge of putting people back to work.
Empty storefronts and light foot traffic on the Upper East Side of Manhattan underscore the pandemic’s economic toll and challenge of putting people back to work.Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Each state is supposed to administer the new supplement, just as it processes regular state unemployment insurance and federal pandemic jobless benefits, but most states have not yet had their programs approved and many have not yet applied.

Remember the weeks or even monthslong delays that occurred in the spring when state unemployment systems were overwhelmed with claims? Computer systems had to be updated and reprogrammed, and staff members trained. Now states must again work out how to process a new program while they keep existing benefits flowing. New claims for state jobless benefits unexpectedly jumped last week to 1.1 million.

On a conference call with reporters on Thursday, John P. Pallasch, assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department, said it could take some states up to six weeks to figure out how to get a program up and running.

As of Friday, funds had been approved for 15 states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. Keith Turi, a FEMA official, said on the call on Thursday that the initial approvals were for three weeks. “We’ll add additional weeks from there as needed,” he said.

Most states, though, are still reviewing the rules issued by the federal government to determine how to carry them out.

Florida is mulling “the best course of action that will preserve the state’s financial stability while providing important assistance to Floridians in need,” said Cody McCloud, the press secretary to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Ohio plans to apply, but is considering what it needs to do to upgrade its systems, said Bret Crow, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

States have until Sept. 10 to apply for the funds.

To finance the program without a congressional appropriation, Mr. Trump set it up to draw from federal disaster funds — a limited pool — and the administration said that no more than $44 billion would be spent.

According to estimates from FEMA and the Labor Department, that sum will cover four or five weeks of payments to unemployed workers who are eligible. The funds are supposed to be retroactive to Aug. 1, so recipients might be paid only through early September.

Mr. Trump acted after Democrats and Republicans were unable to work out a deal on supplemental benefits before the August congressional recess. Democrats have steadfastly supported restarting the $600 weekly booster that ended last month. Republicans have pushed for a smaller supplement — initially proposing $200 a week, arguing that bigger sums discourage people from returning to work.

Studies by economists across the political spectrum have concluded that the additional benefits have not deterred job seekers. The latest, by the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago, found that despite anecdotal reports of people turning down jobs, “very few workers would not have returned to work” if given the opportunity. For most, the temporary nature of the supplement, the difficulty of finding another job, and concerns about career setbacks and permanently lower wages outweigh the short-term financial gain. And workers who reject job offers are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits.

Nearly 30 million people are receiving some form of jobless benefits. At the end of June, there were roughly 5.9 million job openings.

Economists say the emergency federal checks this year have kept the economy functioning, fueling spending that has supported restaurants, retailers and other businesses. The $600-a-week supplement injected roughly $70 billion a month into the economy between April and July, almost 5 percent of total household income.

Nelson D. Schwartz contributed reporting.