We’re here to help.
The pandemic has put millions of people out of work, forced painful sacrifices and put many in the position of needing help they never imagined would be necessary. We assembled this guide to connect you with information about government benefits, free services and financial strategies to get you through this crisis.
If you have a question that we have not answered about different kinds of relief, please write to [email protected] Ron and Tara will read every message.
A giant pandemic relief package made significant — but temporary — changes to the way the unemployment insurance system works. These changes expand the kinds of workers who are eligible for unemployment, extend the amount of time people can receive benefits and increase the amount people can receive.
Who is eligible? The state programs that make up the unemployment system now cover far more people than usual, including self-employed people and part-time workers. Those who are unemployed, are partly unemployed or cannot work for a wide variety of coronavirus-related reasons will be more likely to receive benefits — and you don’t necessarily need to lose your job to qualify. For example, if you’re quarantined or have been furloughed — that is, you’re not being paid but expect to return to your job eventually — you may be eligible.
How much will someone get? States set many of their own rules, including for benefit amounts, which are generally calculated as a percentage of your income over the past year, up to a certain maximum. Some states are more generous than others, but unemployment typically replaces roughly 45 percent of your lost income.
Whatever your benefit amount, the CARES Act also provides a temporary increase of $600 weekly, but only through July 31.
How long will it last? Benefits could last nine months or more, through a combination of state and federal programs. But the details depend on your state.
Most states pay benefits for 26 weeks, though some offer less. After that, federal legislation extends benefits by another 13 weeks. (Here’s a helpful illustration that breaks down how the program works in New York State.)
In periods of high unemployment, your state may also offer its own extended benefit program. Extended benefits usually last for half the length of the state’s standard benefit period.
What else should I know? Being eligible for benefits doesn’t mean the process is easy.
Many states administering these benefits are relying on archaic systems, which have been overwhelmed by the influx of claims. That has left many people beyond frustrated because they were locked out, unable to submit applications or wondering if and when a check would ever arrive. If you’re still encountering difficulty, try contacting your elected state and federal representatives for help. Legal Aid is another good resource for lower-income households.
Paid Sick Leave and Family Leave
The CARES Act gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the outbreak, but there are a lot of exceptions, and how the benefits work depends on your circumstances.
Who is eligible? Most workers at small and midsize companies, as well as government employees. And that includes part-time workers.
How much will they receive? Eligible employees get two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill or seeking care, as long as they’ve been employed at least 30 days. They can receive their full pay, up to $511 a day.
Some workers can also get 12 weeks of paid leave to care for children whose schools are closed, or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the outbreak, but fewer workers qualify for this type of leave. They can receive two-thirds of their usual pay, up to $200 a day.
Part-time workers will be paid the amount they typically earn in a two-week period, up to the daily limits. People who are self-employed — including gig workers like Uber drivers and Instacart shoppers — can also receive paid leave, but they must calculate their average daily income and claim it as a tax credit.
Who is left out? Employers with fewer than 50 workers can deny workers the child-care leave (but not the sick leave) if it would be hard on their businesses, and companies with more than 500 employees are excluded from the rules entirely. Many workers at big businesses already have paid sick leave, but their employers’ low-wage workers are the least likely to be covered. The New America Foundation has published a detailed list of large employers (mostly consumer-facing companies like retailers, restaurant chains and hotels) and their policies.
If you are experiencing food insecurity for the first time, you’re not alone. If you’ve never used a food pantry, it might help to read a few dispatches from others who started getting groceries at local food banks. Here’s a list of myths about food pantries and tips for visiting them. To find your nearest food pantry, start with the map here.
Many people who experience even a temporary loss of income can become eligible for food stamps but do not realize it. The formal name for the program is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and eligibility may vary by state. The federal F.A.Q. about SNAP eligibility is here, and you can learn more about your state’s rules via this map. As Tara noted in a recent article, it isn’t always possible to use SNAP benefits when buying groceries online.
Millions of homeowners have pressed the pause button on their mortgage payments, a form of relief extended by the CARES Act. Not all homeowners are covered under the new law, however, and many borrowers seeking relief have been given inaccurate information. Here’s what you need to know.
Who is covered by the law? Homeowners with mortgages backed by the federal government are permitted to temporarily suspend their payments, a process called forbearance, for up to a year. This covers about 70 percent of mortgage holders and includes loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (known as F.H.A. loans) and those guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Agriculture.
About 30 percent of mortgage holders have loans owned by banks or other private investors. They are not covered by the new law, but many of these homeowners have received similar relief, often granted in three-month increments.
What happens after forbearance? Skipped payments must be paid back. How that is done will vary depending on your personal circumstances — and who owns your loan.
If you have a federally backed loan, you should be presented with several ways to become current on your mortgage — and none of them require you to immediately pay the money back in a lump sum (although you can if you want to). If you can afford to resume your regular payments, you might pay the money back over several months, for example, or settle up when the home is sold, refinanced or when the mortgage term is up.
People who still cannot afford to make their mortgage payments after the forbearance period expires will probably have to lower their monthly payment by modifying their loan, a more formal process that will require an application.
For mortgage holders with loans owned by banks or private investors, the options aren’t always as clear or as accommodating.
What about foreclosure? Federal housing officials recently extended a nationwide eviction and foreclosure moratorium for borrowers with loans backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the F.H.A. This includes foreclosures that are already in progress.
Where can I get assistance? If you don’t feel like you are being treated fairly — or are simply overwhelmed by the process — it might help to find a housing counselor. For more information, check out our short resource guide here.
While rent payments nationwide have not yet fallen precipitously, every person who can’t pay is in crisis, and fear remains high that more trouble is coming.
Where can I get help? If your landlord won’t give you a break and you want to see what legal options you might have, you can search for a low or no-cost legal assistance office near you via the Legal Services Corporation’s map. Just Shelter, a tenant advocacy group formed by Matthew Desmond and Tessa Lowinske Desmond, also offers information on local organizations that can provide advice to renters in distress.
What are governments doing? State and local governments have offered some eviction protection. Mr. Desmond, the author of the book “Evicted,” is also the founder of Eviction Lab, which maintains a list of local and regional actions to pause evictions of renters. It has also published a scorecard that examines state policies and how they’ve changed since the pandemic took hold.
The CARES Act put a temporary, nationwide eviction moratorium in place for any renters whose landlords have mortgages backed or owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration. This will last through the end of July, and landlords can’t charge any fees or penalties for nonpayment of rent either. The moratorium applies only to eviction for nonpayment; tenants can still be evicted for other reasons.
What about my landlord? Regulators have also told landlords whose own mortgages are owned by Fannie or Freddie that they can use forbearance on their own mortgages, just as long as they do not evict tenants after they pause their mortgage payments. The challenge for renters is figuring out whether their landlord has such a mortgage. This information sometimes appears if you look up the address in the National Housing Preservation Database.
If the landlord’s mortgage is not in forbearance, renters who skip payments could be risking eviction if there has not been a local prohibition.
Millions of Americans most likely lost their health coverage along with their jobs. And many others can no longer afford the policy they were paying for on their own.
If your situation has recently changed, you have more options now than in previous crises. But navigating the complex web of alternatives and figuring out how to qualify can be a challenge.
If your income has dwindled to almost nothing. People earning very little will most likely be eligible for the federal-state health insurance program known as Medicaid in 36 states and the District of Columbia. Because of the Affordable Care Act, most states now allow all residents to qualify for Medicaid if their household’s monthly income is below a certain threshold — around $1,400 a month for a single person or $2,950 for a family of four. That calculation should include any normal unemployment benefits you are receiving, but not the additional $600 a week being paid temporarily and not the direct stimulus payment authorized under recent relief legislation.
If your income is too high for Medicaid. Those earning more can probably buy coverage through the marketplaces established under the Affordable Care Act — and you may qualify for substantial subsidies. If you lose your job for any reason, you are permitted to sign up during a special enrollment period.
People who want to buy coverage even in the absence of a job loss might be able to do so if they live in states that run their own marketplaces; some of those states have established special enrollment periods. But the Trump administration decided in April that it would not reopen the federal Healthcare.gov marketplaces to new customers. Those marketplaces are used in 38 states.
If you already have a marketplace plan but have experienced a drop in income, you can go back into the system — even outside of an open enrollment period — and adjust your income, which may result in greater subsidies.
It’s also possible to keep your insurance if you lost your job, but that tends to be more expensive than buying coverage in the Obamacare marketplaces.
I have a job and a workplace plan. What about me? You may have a chance to change your coverage or add family members outside of an open enrollment period, which usually isn’t possible. The Internal Revenue Service recently made an exception, but your employer doesn’t have to offer this option.
For more details on the various coverage options, check out this piece by Margot Sanger-Katz and Reed Abelson. (At least one health insurance company, UnitedHealth, is offering modest relief by providing enrollees with a break on premiums.)
Credit Cards and Auto Loans
If you need temporary relief on your credit card or auto loan payments, many lenders are offering at least some help.
Start with the website for your lenders and read what they have posted. Some have made their policies more stingy since Ron first reported on changes in March.
If you call for help via phone, record the conversation if you can or at least get written documentation of any changes the lender agrees to. This column from Ron explains how and why.
Among the options you can ask for are permission to skip payments (with waived interest charges during the months you skip), the elimination of late or other fees and a permanently lower interest rate. Ask how any change might affect your credit score and whether you’ll have to make up missed payments in one lump sum right after the zero-payment months.
Financial losses often come with emotional strain, at the very point when people may be least likely to spend money on care for themselves.
Many mental health practitioners do pro bono work or charge fees on a sliding scale. There does not appear to be a national directory of such providers, but there is no reason not to contact local ones to ask about low or no-cost services.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness maintains a help line that can provide referrals to local resources as well. Its number is 1-800-950-6264.
More Helpful Advice
Help for the Self-Employed. The self-employed often have fewer protections than employees working for companies and other organizations, but two legislative packages extended several new benefits to help them cope during the pandemic. Paid sick and family leave is now available in the form of a tax credit. Unemployment insurance is also newly available to gig workers, independent contractors and freelancers who are usually ineligible. And self-employed people who can no longer afford their health insurance or want to buy new polices may have more options. Tara’s story has more details.
You have some flexibility with your federal student loans. In fact, you should have automatically received relief without lifting a finger: Borrowers have been placed in so-called administrative forbearance, which allows you to temporarily stop making payments until Sept. 30.
No interest will accrue during this period, and borrowers who want to continue making loan payments can do so.
The Education Department says that these skipped payments will still count toward loan forgiveness for borrowers in income-driven repayment and public service loan forgiveness programs, as long as the other usual requirements are fulfilled.
If you have more questions, check out the Education Department’s Q&A here. Some private lenders are offering relief programs, too.
Staying in touch. A number of large companies have agreed not to terminate the service of residential or small business customers who can’t pay their bills until at least June 30, including AT&T, Comcast, Cox, RCN, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. A full list of companies is available on the Federal Communications Commission site.
How to help. There is no shortage of need right now — and no shortage of guides to helping. The New York Times has a basic guide to coronavirus giving, suggestions on where to donate money, some practical tips on what not to do and an explainer on donating clothes.
Ron wrote a column about the kind of direct giving that allows you to channel money to individuals with immediate cash needs. The New York Times has also started our own campaign as part of our Neediest Cases fund.
You have more time to file your federal income taxes. The federal government has moved the tax filing deadline to July 15. You don’t have to file your return or make payments until then. If you are owed a refund, you’ll still receive it as normal when you file your tax return, no matter when you submit it. Don’t neglect your state income taxes: The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is tracking state changes on its website.
Don’t forget about property taxes, either. Despite the economic strain caused by the virus, in many places, homeowners are still expected to make property tax payments by the usual deadlines. If they were postponed, they could wreak havoc on local budgets. Our colleague Ann Carrns has a story with more information. You can find details on jurisdictions that may offer some leeway in this chart.
There are situations where you may get a break. If you have paused payments on your federally backed loan and you pay taxes and insurance from an escrow account, your mortgage servicer should continue to advance those payments as well, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. But if you don’t use an escrow account for taxes and insurance, you will need to continue making those payments on your own unless your locality provides some flexibility or relief.
Stimulus payments are still going out. If you haven’t received yours yet, read Ron’s story that might help explain why. Some people are now receiving them on debit cards, and the envelopes look like junk mail. Don’t throw them out.
Think you received a payment by mistake, say, for a deceased relative? Don’t spend the money. The Internal Revenue Service may well realize its mistake and ask for it back come tax time in 2021.
Financial planners are offering free advice. Dozens of members of the XY Planning Network have offered to help people through phone consultations. The Financial Planning Association has its own list of volunteer certified financial planners, as does the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.
What to know about Social Security. Older workers who have lost their jobs and are short on savings may be contemplating whether they should file for Social Security earlier than they had anticipated. Filing before your full retirement age has serious implications, which may reduce your monthly check forevermore. Before you decide, consider the following strategies. (And if you’re eligible for unemployment, you might apply for that first.)
The Social Security Administration has mostly closed its 1,200 offices for routine requests like help with benefit claims. Those requests should go through the agency’s toll-free phone line, 1-800-772-1213, and its website. In-person assistance is still available for crucial services, like reinstatement of benefits and assistance for those with severe disabilities. Those seeking in-person help must call in advance. Mark Miller has details here.
You can use a retirement account in new ways. Many people who are out of work may be turning to their retirement accounts for emergency cash. Under normal circumstances, that would trigger taxes and penalties. But the CARES Act provides more flexible hardship options for 401(k) and individual retirement accounts. But even newly jobless people who don’t need to tap their savings have a decision to make: Leave the money in a former employer’s plan or roll it over to an individual retirement account? All of these situations require some analysis. This story can help.
Get your free credit report. Consumers can now check their credit reports from each of the Big Three credit firms each week, free of charge, instead of just once a year. Routine checks have always been wise, but now they are essential — particularly if you’re skipping payments with the permission of your lender. Even if your lender says this relief won’t hurt your credit profile, mistakes are bound to happen. To find out more about how to check your report and what to look for, read Ann’s story here.
Watch out for fraud. Whether it’s a shady sales pitch for a gravity-defying investment or a website offering masks that never arrive, coronavirus-related fraud is on the rise. These solicitations may arrive by telephone, text messages, email, social media, even in store parking lots, which is why consumers must remain hypervigilant. This story from Tara looks at overhyped pitches for complex investments, while this piece from Ann surveys the landscape of bogus practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission have also posted warnings about coronavirus fraud, and a Bentley University professor named Steve Weisman also keeps a running list of virus-related scams.