With more than 231,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States alone, working together to contain the virus is the collective goal. But while measures of social distancing and quarantining have been invoked far and wide to protect ourselves and others, it bears mentioning that, for many, said strategies have compromised livelihood. With a number of states formally instructing citizens to stay inside, away from public gatherings and their own jobs (unless deemed essential), countless businesses have either closed down or pivoted operations in such a way that slashes staffing needs. A common result? Many people have been laid off because of the coronavirus and its economic impact.
Currently, the unemployment rate is slated to hit 30 percent by the end of the second quarter, making it even higher than the peak of the Great Depression, which reportedly reached around 25 percent. And on April 2, the Labor Department reported that a record-shattering 6.6 million unemployment claims were filed the week prior. These numbers and projections mean we’ve entered a new professional territory where not much about one’s employment status feels too safe or certain. So, whether you’ve been laid off because of the coronavirus or feel your job is in a precarious-at-best position, we’ve called in financial reinforcements to guide you in the best next steps to take.
Before getting into the financial nitty-gritty, though, know that letting yourself feel the wave of emotions—upset, terrified, furious—that come with getting laid off and having your financial future thrown into absolute uncertainty can help you process and prepare for emerging on the other side. This is true under the best of conditions, but especially so during a pandemic. “Getting let go or laid off, especially during an already high-anxiety moment, is very overwhelming,” says Amanda Clayman, LCSW, financial therapist and Prudential’s Financial Wellness Advocate. “But where you are now will not last forever. Know it’s not linear: Having a good day yesterday and a bad day today doesn’t mean you’re backsliding. This is what normal processing looks like. Take care of where you are today.”
“It’s like our financial lives were sandcastles on the beach and the tide rushed in and ruined them. We will be able to rebuild, but it’s unclear when.” —Paco de Leon, financial expert
It’s also crucial to recognize that we’re in an unprecedented situation that’s unfolding at rapid speed, and many unknowns cloud when we can get back to work. “It’s like our financial lives were sandcastles on the beach and the tide has quickly rushed in and ruined them,” says Paco de Leon, financial expert and founder of The Hell Yeah Group. “Eventually we will be able to rebuild, but it’s unclear when ‘eventually’ is and how we’ll do it in a way that will prepare us for the next crisis.”
How does the rebuilding process work, then? “In the same way those folks have strung together income streams before the crisis, they’ll have to figure out how to string it together during the crisis,” says de Leon. “They’ll have to rely on emergency assistance, social programs, relief programs, community, and the kindness of strangers.” Below, find a breakdown of those programs and forms of assistance, like the stimulus package, the basics of unemployment benefits, and other financial tips to aid you after being laid off because of coronavirus.
What’s in the stimulus package, and will it benefit you?
It’s very helpful to know up front what aid we’re receiving from the $2 trillion government stimulus package that passed last week. The plan states that single adults earning up to $75,000 will receive a one-time $1,200 check with decreasing returns through $99,000 earned; married couples earning up to $150,000 will receive $2,400 with decreasing returns through $198,000 earned; and parents will receive $500 for each child under age 17. These allocations are based on your 2019 tax return, or 2018 if you’ve yet to file your taxes this year. Currently, though, it looks like checks won’t begin to hit our bank accounts until mid to late April.
While those payments are currently one-time-only, some facets of the package aren’t: Those who have been laid off because of the coronavirus but don’t otherwise qualify for unemployment benefits are eligible for $600 a week to be delivered through July 31, 2020, via pandemic unemployment compensation.
No matter what kind of government assistance you do or don’t apply for, though, the following 12 tips are helpful for navigating a layoff at any time. But in the this COVID-19 era of uncertainty? They’re more important than ever. Here’s what experts what you to know.
12 best next steps for financial health if you’ve been laid off because of the coronavirus
1. File for unemployment benefits
The amount you stand to receive differs from state to state, and the length of payment varies between 12 to 28 weeks, also depending on the state. In order to receive your funds, you must first file a claim by going to your state’s designated website (search for your state + unemployment benefits, and you find the correct destination easily) and creating an account. Then you file a claim by outlining your recent job history, how you were let go from that job, and any information you have about whether you’ll return.
But before you roll your eyes at all the red tape, know that there’s been a concerted effort from the top to expand these benefits. “The government has made changes to benefits and is allowing more flexibility with granting benefits during this time of crisis,” says financial expert Angela Holliday, president of Frost Investment Services. Now, unemployed workers who wouldn’t normally qualify for state benefits will be eligible to receive the aforementioned $600 a week for four months. Under that umbrella are self-employed workers, those seeking part-time work, people who quit their job or can’t get to work because of the pandemic, or people who don’t have sufficient work history to otherwise qualify for benefits.
2. Investigate alternate health-care coverage
Though our country’s health-care system is a hot mess that’s been known to keep people in toxic jobs and marriages, losing your insurance during a global pandemic isn’t just unideal—it’s dire. If you’ve been laid off because of the coronavirus, investigate how you can be protected under the Affordable Care Act or other coverage options that provide assistance.
“If you don’t have health care but have an emergency, most hospitals have ‘charity’ funds or can apply for emergency Medicaid coverage for you,” says Financial Gym founder and CEO Shannon McLay. “You can also always go on a payment plan with health-care providers should you need to.”
3. Create a new budget
To keep yourself accountable, set aside an hour or two in your day to examine where your money goes. “First re-acquaint and understand where you stand financially: how much you have, how much you need, and where you can pull cash flow from,” says financial advisor Kathy Entwistle, financial advisor and SVP at UBS. “Make sure to take a look at your credit-card statements or activity online. Just as you would block off your schedule for workouts, block out your schedule to review your plan.”
“First re-acquaint and understand where you stand financially: how much you have, how much you need, and where you can pull cash flow from.” —financial advisor Kathy Entwistle
Then, use the information to create a new budget for yourself. And if the thought of number-crunching frightens you, well, there are a number of apps for that (De Leon is partial to Tiller HQ). “Not only is now a time to get back to basics and fundamentals in our everyday lives by cooking all our meals and simplifying ways to entertain ourselves and exist, now’s a time to get back to basics with your finances: what’s coming in, what’s going out, and examining the places you can impact either side will be helpful,” says De Leon.
Emphasis on “either side.” Seeing how you spend not only tells you where you can make new choices and save, but where you factually will save. For example, if you usually pay for public transportation or grab a Starbucks coffee on the way to work, one small silver lining of the quarantine life is that those expenses are cut for you.
4. Investigate what relief services are available for monthly expenses
“Relief programs are…being created by companies, banks, lenders, internet-service providers, and cable providers,” says De Leon. “Spending time to find out about what is available for relief to help reduce expenses might be very helpful in the short-term.”
To kick off your inquiries, consult your list of expenses Entwistle suggested you create, and take note of what the recurring big-ticket items are. Make a list, and then prioritize it. For example, now would be a really terrible time to lose connection and communication to other human beings, so checking in with phone and internet relief programs is a really great place to start.
5. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your community
“Cities and communities around the country are coming together to create relief funds to help the most vulnerable people in the population,” says De Leon. “Connect with your community to find out who has leads.”
For starters, service workers may want to check to see if their city has a Virtual Tip Jar. And small business owners may consider starting a GoFundMe goal for relief. Be vocal, be curious, and be confident that people want to help if they can.
6. Avoid resorting to retail therapy because you’re panicked
According to Clayman, retail therapy targets two specific things: distraction and a feeling of productivity, which are both things you might be low on if you’ve been laid off because of the coronavirus. “Retail therapy engages that old hunter-gatherer part of the brain that tells us we’re engaged in a search for a reward or resource,” Clayman says. “It’s a fully absorbing task—that’s is the distraction piece—and one that provides a mood-boosting dopamine payoff when we buy. In a world where so many efforts are complex, long-term efforts, this search-and-purchase can provide temporary relief.”
That said, you can still mimic the soothing short-term effects of retail therapy without spending money in a way that Holliday warns may open you up to long-term debt. To find those, Clayman says to identify ways you can distract yourself that will give way to a sense of achievement. “You might try out jigsaw puzzles, or crosswords, make an encouraging sign to go in your window, or attempt an ambitious new recipe,” she says. “As for being productive, the opportunities right now are endless. You might write letters to facility-bound seniors, learn to sew face masks out of a spare set of bed sheets, or tackle that closet re-org you’ve been meaning to do for the last six months.”
7. Contact your creditors and lenders
“Learn about what relief they can offer as a result of the crisis now–don’t wait until you start missing payments,” says Holliday. “By negotiating relief up front, you can avoid negative credit bureau reporting, but continue to monitor your credit to make sure you don’t have any delinquencies. And with the Federal Reserve dramatically cutting rates, find out if refinancing debt at a lower rate is possible. Most utilities like electricity, phone, gas, won’t terminate services during a crisis.”
“By negotiating relief upfront, you can avoid negative credit bureau reporting, but continue to monitor your credit to make sure you don’t have any delinquencies.” —financial expert Angela Holliday
8. Review and reconsider your debt payments
On an up note, there might be relief in place for at least some of your debts, particularly student loans. Right now the stimulus package is set to suspend federal student loan payments without interest accruing through September 30.
And regardless of these leniences, if you’re still making payments for student loans or other debts—credit card, auto loans, or whatever—you might want to make adjustments to how much you’re paying. “Don’t pay anything other than the minimum until you get back on your feet and are in a better position to get back on track and put together a plan to reduce your debt,” says Entwistle. “These are debts that you will want to be able to eliminate once you have your cashflow back in place and you have an emergency fund set aside.”
9. Consider applying for a grant
“Now would be the time for artists in particular to look into grant options, emergency or otherwise, as another piece of the income pie,” says De Leon. If you’re unsure and overwhelmed of where to start with that, a running doc of grant resources is available, with a tip of the hat to Baltimore Jewelry Center for sharing.
10. Make use of your time affluence
If you’re in a stable enough financial place to do so, consider that, after being laid off because of the coronavirus, you may have a wealth of time or “time affluence.” And if you have the energy to be productive, creative, or at least very thoughtful, that’s not nothing.
“We are all being given a nonrenewable resource right now: time,” says De Leon. “I think creative people need to realize that this is a gift, and how and what they spend their time doing now can be a source of income later. Use this time to seriously consider and think about how you can create a sustainable life in the future—in good times and bad. Or, use this time creating something now that can be monetized later.”
11. If you can, set aside unexpected income toward an emergency fund
Stressing hard on if you can. If you’re able to coast for a while, or you can just put $25 aside a week (see: curbing a takeout habit), this is a good time to either build or add to your safety net.
“If you receive unexpected money or if you are expecting a tax refund, plan on adding it to this fund,” says Holliday.
12. Focus on what you can control
“Though this is undoubtedly a trying time, try your best not to panic,” says Holliday. “This was out of your control—so try to focus on what you can control.” You could open a small “Fun and BS account” with a debit card with a low balance that gives you an “allowance” for feel-good pleasures like food delivery. Treat yourself to a podcast to help your financial health, or get a budget buddy to help you stay accountable and swap financial tips. You can keep track of your spending with small as-needed adjustments, like cutting a streaming service for a month to see if you miss it.
“And finally, know you can add as much free stuff as you want,” says Clayman. “I often say to my clients, ‘Think of necessity as a friendly muse: You may find creative inspiration when you [embrace cutting back expenses] as a positive learning experience as opposed to something negative you have to do.’”