Carolyn S* says she’s the mother of two trying to live on a $170-per-week unemployment check. Writing in via the Jackson Free Press online chat, she told us her husband is self-employed, but can’t work because “his job requires him to knock on doors, which he can’t do.” She says he’s been denied unemployment.
“I don’t receive government assistance like food stamps and Medicaid,” she wrote. “Everyone keeps telling me to stop stressing because of the whole CARES Act unemployment increase. My kids are doing without for now. This is the first time my kids have had to do without anything, and it’s killing me.”
As COVID-19 crashes the Mississippi economy and unemployment skyrockets, a lot of people are scared. We know, because you've been sending the Jackson Free Press questions by email, online chat and social media. We've been working to gather answers on unemployment in Mississippi and get them to you in a quickly digestible format.
How Unemployment Works in Mississippi
First, a quick note on how unemployment works in Mississippi: The Mississippi Department of Employment Security, or MDES, is the state entity responsible for determining unemployment eligibility and disbursing those funds. Generally, a newly unemployed person will visit the MDES website or a WIN Jobs Center and apply for unemployment.
There is usually a week-long waiting period, during which MDES will verify with the employer that the employee was let go without cause and otherwise meets the criteria. Because employers file reports on their employees’ earnings with the state, MDES can look in its database and see that unemployment funds are associated with that employee.
Contractors, freelancers or sole proprietors whose taxes aren't taken out by an employer are generally not eligible for unemployment because no one has been paying into the Mississippi unemployment trust fund for that person.
MDES usually distributes funds to the unemployed via a debit card. Every week, starting at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday morning, people currently receiving unemployment can log into the MDES website and perform their weekly certification. Under normal circumstances, that includes proving that they're looking for a job and haven't turned down employment.
When approved, MDES recharges their debit card, often within a day, Timothy Rush, director of reemployment assistance at MDES, said. The Mississippi benefit tops out at $235 per week.
Contractors, Self-Employed Get Paid Under CARES Act
That's how it usually works. But the CARES Act passed by Congress has upended that in several different ways, including doing away with the waiting period and adding a $600-per-week "Pandemic Unemployment Compensation," or PUC, benefit on top of the state benefit beginning with the week ending April 4.
The CARES Act also opens the $600-per-week benefit up to contract-based or self-employed workers who are unable to keep working or to get paid for their work, through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program.
Gov. Tate Reeves’ recent executive order waived the requirement that people keep looking for work while on unemployment during the COVID-19 emergency.
On Wednesday, Rush and MDES Executive Director Jackie Turner gave a Q&A webinar hosted by the Madison County Economic Development Authority, during which Rush answered several pressing questions about unemployment benefits.
Q: When is the $600 coming?
A: Rush said on the call that MDES is currently reprogramming its computer systems to handle the additional $600 federal benefit and that he hopes MDES will begin distributing that money next week.
The first people to receive the $600 PUC benefit are likely to be people who were already approved for unemployment and have received their Mississippi benefit for the week that ended April 4. When those people finish their certification for this week (which they can start doing early Sunday morning) and the money hits their debit card early next week, it may have an additional $600. (It may even have $1,200, to cover both the prior week and the current one.)
If it doesn’t, Rush says the system will be programmed to make sure they receive the full federal benefit to which they’re entitled.
Q: If you've been laid off, furloughed or fired from a job in Mississippi through no fault of your own, how do you apply for unemployment?
A: Rush encouraged everyone to use the online system at mdes.ms.gov to apply for unemployment benefits. You can also apply in person at WINS job centers, but applying online is more efficient, given the incredible and sudden increase in applicants. (Applying online also decreases the exposure of applicants and WINS job center employees during social distancing.)
Q: What if you are a Mississippi resident, but you work in another state, and you've been laid off?
A: Rush said the general rule is that you apply in the state where the job is. So if you live in Mississippi but work in Memphis, you should probably apply in Tennessee. The only reason to apply in Mississippi if you have reason to believe your company was contributing to the Mississippi unemployment program.
Q: How do contractors or self-employed people apply for the new unemployment benefits?
A: Rush said that MDES is also reprogramming their computer system to handle PUA claims for people who are contract workers or self-employed. He offered two ways to apply.
The first is to go to mdes.ms.gov and apply now; when you go through the process, you can check that you're self-employed and you're applying for disaster relief.
However, if the MDES system finds that you have no money in the system from a job where your employer made unemployment contributions, it will deny your claim. According to Rush, that's OK. MDES plans to go through all of the applications that the system initially denied once they're able to process PUA claims for contractors and self-employed people.
The other way is to wait until next week to file, by which time MDES hopes to have updated its systems. Once the system is updated, Rush said MDES will update its website and probably social media to let people know.
Rush said later in the call that self-employed or contract workers will need to provide some proof of how they were paid and what their income was, which might be 1099 forms, 2019 tax returns, contracts and check stubs, etc.
Q: Can part-time employees apply for unemployment benefits and/or the $600?
A: Part-time employees whose companies are giving them fewer hours or lower pay can apply for benefits. But you've got to be careful here. MDES has an "allowance" of $40 per week in earned part-time income before what you earn is subtracted from the $235 benefit. So, if you earn $50 at your part-time job, your benefit is lowered to $225.
To get the $600 federal benefit, you need to be eligible that week for the state benefit, Rush said. So, if you make $275 or more from your part-time job in a given week, you won't be eligible that week for the Mississippi benefit. Meaning you also won’t qualify for the $600 federal benefit.
Jackson restaurateur Mitchell Moore had to shut down all three of his businesses after people stopped coming in because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Like many other business owners throughout the Jackson area, Mitchell has had to get creative to keep his family afloat and support his employees during the pandemic.
But, if you make $250 that week, you’d still be eligible for $25 in Mississippi unemployment and the full $600 federal benefit.
Q: What if I stop going to work because I'm afraid of COVID-19, or I don't think it's safe to go to work, even if they're an "essential" business.
A: This is another tricky one. Generally speaking, if your company offers you work that you are capable of doing, and you decline to do it, then you won't qualify for Mississippi unemployment.
If you don’t qualify for Mississippi unemployment, you won’t get the PUA benefit unless you qualify for special COVID-19 exemptions. Those exemptions, according to the National Employment Law Product, are:
- You or a member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- you're providing care for someone with a COVID-19 diagnosis;
- you're providing care for a child or household member who can't attend school or work because of COVID-19 closure;
- you are quarantined or have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine; you can't reach your new job because of COVID-19;
- you've become the breadwinner because your head-of-household has died as a result of COVID-19;
- you had to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19;
- your place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19;
- you meet other criteria established by the Secretary of Labor.
Read breaking coverage of COVID-19 in Mississippi, plus safety tips, cancellations, more in the JFP's archive.
Q: Are recipients taxed on unemployment benefits?
A: "Yes,” Rush said. Both the state unemployment benefit and the federal $600 benefit is taxable. You can choose to have MDES take the taxes out each week or you can pay them yourself.
Q: Are employers charged for the unemployment benefits?
A: Rush said that, currently, if an employee is let go from employment and is eligible for Mississippi unemployment benefits, the employer's account is charged for those benefits. He suggested that the Legislature could elect to change or amend that, but that's the current law. The $600 federal benefit will not be charged against the employer's account.
Q: If MDES denies your unemployment claim, can you appeal?
A: If you receive a notification that you don't qualify for unemployment benefits, it will include instructions for how to file an appeal. Appealing a state benefit denial will work a little differently from a federal benefit denial, but there's a process for both.
*Name shortened for anonymity.
Email Publisher Todd Stauffer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @toddstauffer.
Read the JFP’s coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19. Get more details on preventive measures here. Read about announced closings and delays in Mississippi here. Read MEMA’s advice for a COVID-19 preparedness kit here.
Email information about closings and other vital related logistical details to [email protected].
Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin. Seyma Bayram is covering the outbreak inside the capital city and in the criminal-justice system. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @seymabayram0.