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5 Steps to Manage Sudden Unemployment

Much of the nation is under stay at home guidelines. The COVID-19 virus is spreading around the globe. And you’ve just lost your job. This can be an incredibly stressful experience for even the most well-prepared individual.

First, take a breath and know you are not alone. Since the start of the global pandemic, more than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs. And while things may seem scary or bleak right now, you should focus your efforts on what is within your power to minimize the financial damage and prepare for a new position and opportunities.

Here are the things you should be considering right now:

1.    Fill the income gap

Without regular pay, there are a few sources of income to consider, including any severance, unpaid time, unemployment benefits and part-time work.

Before you leave your current position, ask about severance benefits. Details are likely clarified in your employee handbook. If you’re offered a severance package, take time to determine whether you’d like to negotiate for more or ask a lawyer to review it. 

You should also ask to be compensated for unused vacation or sick days. Pay for unused time varies by company, so again, check your employee handbook or HR policies.

You should also apply for unemployment benefits immediately, since it may take some time before you start receiving benefits. And it may take some time to get your application in due to higher demand right now. The Department of Labor’s site offers links to unemployment agencies in each state, where you can learn more about the application process.

Unemployment benefits usually last 26 weeks in most states but check out your state laws to see if it’s possible to get an extension. Also, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act supplements state unemployment with $600 per week, more than double maximums in most states, for up to four months.

Keep in mind that you can’t receive unemployment benefits if you quit or were fired due to performance or other problems. If you are unsure if you qualify, contact your state unemployment office for more details.

You also can look to temporary or part-time positions or start your own business. It will be trickier due to the impact of the current environment, but there may be some options. The Small Business Administration has programs that offer advice to people who want to start their own businesses. One caveat: Check on your state’s rules on doing any work while getting unemployment benefits to see if your benefits will be reduced if you have other income. And be sure not to neglect your job search while doing interim work so that you’re back to full-time employment as soon as possible.

If you have not done so already, go ahead and run the numbers for your 2019 tax return. If you are owed a refund, it makes sense to file your taxes as soon as you can, even though the filing deadline has been extended to July 15. The IRS has said it is trying to get refunds to taxpayers quickly so they can have that needed cash.

Lastly, be sure to collect your federal Economic Impact Grant, aka “Stimulus check.” The federal government will automatically deposit payments into the accounts for those who use direct deposit for their taxes. Others will receive checks. You can check the status of your payment at

If you still are running short of funds for your basic living expenses, the CARES Act contains a special provision allowing you to take a distribution of up to $100,000 from your qualified plan if you meet the qualifications.  Qualifying distributions are not subject to the normal 10% withdrawal penalty, are taxed over 3 years and can be repaid within 3 years to avoid all taxes.

2.      Revise your budget and spending

With less money coming in, it’s important to start considering your spending and budgeting.

First, cut the easy expenses, such as dining out or a daily cup of coffee. Then make sure you’re not being charged for services you can no longer use, such as gym memberships, children’s summer camps or sports leagues, or season passes to performances or amusement parks. You may also find smaller savings that will add up if you review cable, phone and internet plans or subscription services.

Then start looking at bigger expenses. Check to see if your state or community has implemented rent freezes or talk with your landlord about reducing or deferring payment. You might also consider moving in with friends or family temporarily or take in a roommate, if feasible.

If you have debt, such as a mortgage, car loan or credit card, reach out to your lender to see about loan forbearance or interest rate reductions. Currently, the federal government has deferred payments and interest accrual on federal student loans. If you are able to pay those, you can cut down on the interest paid over the life of the loan. Interest rates are also extremely low, so if you need additional cash, you may be able to take out a home equity loan or other line of credit but be prepared that banks have started to tighten requirements for home equity loans.

3.      Start your 2020 tax planning

Taxes may be the last thing on your mind, but the tax man hasn’t forgotten about you.

The federal government and many states tax unemployment benefits as ordinary income (like wages). Be sure to check your state’s tax laws to see if you will owe. One big difference is that you don't have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on this income, says Oscar Vives Ortiz, a CPA financial planner and member of the American Institute of CPAs Personal Financial Specialist Committee.

Avoid a surprise tax bill by having up to 10% of your unemployment benefit withheld. You can ask to have taxes withheld when you apply for benefits, or you can file IRS Form W-4V, Voluntary Withholding with your state unemployment office.

If you believe your layoff is temporary or need to stretch benefits, consider bypassing the tax withholding, with the idea that you may have to increase your paycheck withholdings when you return to work or make estimated tax payments each quarter.

Also keep in mind that if you end up earning more income this year, you may fall into a higher marginal tax bracket and the 10% withholding may not be enough, says Ortiz. You will want to revisit this throughout the year and adjust paycheck withholding or adjust quarterly payments as needed.

You'll receive a Form 1099-G from your state unemployment division next January reporting the total unemployment compensation you received for 2020 (and whether you had any state or federal tax withheld from your payments), which you'll report on Schedule 1 of your 1040 when you file your federal income taxes.

4.      Look for a new job

The job market may be difficult to navigate right now, but do not hesitate to start your job search. Update your resume and post it to online job search sites. Also, reach out to everyone you know who might be able to help with a job, this includes colleagues or supervisors from past positions. Contacts are often the best source of new opportunities. And if you had a good experience with a previous employer, let them know you’d be interested in returning in a different position.

Be specific about what you want to do and in which organizations or industries you might like to work. Be prepared to talk about the skills and expertise you can offer to a company. As part of this effort, join or become more active in professional networks or associations in your field to stay current and make new contacts. In addition, the Department of Labor also offers many resources for job seekers.

One thing to keep in mind is that more than 2.2 million small businesses have applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans through the CARES Act. Under that program, the federal government will forgive the loans of companies that have the same employee headcount on June 30 as they had prior to the pandemic. That means that many small businesses have an incentive to be rehiring or bringing in new people over the next two months. To improve your job prospects and your spirits, it’s best to consider your job search as a new job. Try to get up at the same time as you did when employed and to spend a full day working at it. Make deadlines for reaching out to a certain number of contacts, researching alternative career options or whatever other steps can help in your search. At all costs, avoid sleeping late and spending hours on your devices.  

5.      Look after your mental health

Looking for a job and maintaining your income can take intense focus, which is why it’s important to remind yourself of the value of taking a break and enjoying yourself. If you give yourself the chance to relax and have fun some of the time, your search will seem easier.  

While social opportunities may be limited given the current pandemic, there are still several things you can do to remain active. Consider taking a jog, walking the dog or riding bikes with children.

Also, use this time to read a new book, develop new skills or learn another language. There are often free apps, websites and videos to help you refine the skills you have or learn some new ones haven’t had the time to develop. Some of these skills may prove useful in finding a new position or career path.