Although USC student Amanda Whalen applied for unemployment in March, she just received her $5,300 unemployment benefit check last week.
“I’m a pretty financially independent person. I try not to ask for any major monetary loans from my parents, so having to ask for help paying my rent and stuff like that was a major change," Whalen, a fourth-year public relations student, said. "It was really difficult.”
Whalen had to wait to apply for unemployment until her employer officially told her she could in early March and describes the process as “one of the more difficult things" she’s done.
“It really was super eye-opening that something that’s supposed to support people is just so difficult to do,” Whalen said.
Macaulay Morrison, staff attorney in the School of Law, said there are many misconceptions when applying for unemployment benefits.
“People look at unemployment as kind of getting a hand out from the government, but the way the system is set up, it’s a benefit that you’re entitled to if you've been employed and working in South Carolina,” Morrison said. "There's no shame in applying for unemployment benefits."
USC employee relations manager Melissa Arnold said some students expect the university to have a say on whether they get approved. In reality, it is only up to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce (SCDEW).
“It’s kind of a back and forth with SCDEW being the mediator,” Arnold said.
Whalen said the entire process took about an hour for her.
“You have to be really careful when answering the questions because saying that you’re a student can totally ruin your chance of receiving unemployment, or saying you’re a full-time student or if you’re taking classes,” Whalen said.
Historically, some students may not have been able to meet the minimum qualifications for "sufficient work history," according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
The CARES Act ensured that students who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 will be eligible for the same enhanced UI benefits as other workers.
According to the SCDEW, 618,729 people have filed for unemployment in South Carolina since mid-March.
Although applying for unemployment may seem daunting at first, Morrison advises students to not “give up just because of the lag time.”
“Don’t let the fact that the system is bogged down stop you because you will get the money that you’re entitled to even if it's late,” Morrison said. “You’ll still get the benefit, even if they don’t give it to you for a month."
She also said while students have the option to have taxes withheld while unemployed, they must pay taxes on unemployment benefits.
“The last thing we want is for someone who already had a rough 2020, been on unemployment, and then they get to file their taxes for 2020 and realize they actually owe the government money on their unemployment benefits,” Morrison said.
She also wants students to realize they need to certify that they’re unemployed each Sunday or “they just lose out on a week of benefits even though they were qualified.”
Arnold said there are multiple levels of unemployment right now that students qualify for. There’s regular unemployment, which covers unemployed individuals normally, but the federal government has developed “some additional resources that people can apply for.”
“One of those things is the pandemic unemployment assistance, and you can get this by just doing your normal claim," Arnold said. "Then there is a separate application for pandemic emergency unemployment compensation. ... This is something that will extend those unemployment benefits, but you do have to apply separately.”
Arnold recommends that students who are looking into filing for unemployment should visit the SCDEW website, where there is a FAQ for COVID-19-related claims.
Arnold assures students that applications for unemployment can’t automatically be denied, but certain things may exclude students from unemployment, such as "voluntary resignation and quitting your job on your own accord.”