Our Experts Answer Questions About the Job Market & COVID-19

The number of people dealing with job loss has skyrocketed in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With so many people needing unemployment benefits or trying to deal with pay cuts, we're focusing our efforts on answering these timely questions.

To help give context to our rapidly changing work world, we turned to our top experts.

Nationally recognized career and job-search expert Alison Doyle has been writing on those topics for us since 1998. She has published thousands of articles helping people navigate their job searches and career moves, including several recent resources on how to adapt to the current employment climate.

Susan M. Heathfield brings the employer perspective to The Balance Careers. A management consultant and co-owner of a mid-size technology firm, Heathfield has been writing about human resources for The Balance since 2000 and is an industry-leading expert in the field.

Here are Doyle and Heathfield's answers to some of the most common questions we've received about managing career changes during the current crisis.

What can I do if I can't file for unemployment?

Alison Doyle: It’s not just you—state unemployment systems are overwhelmed because over 22 million people have filed unemployment claims in the last month.

But try not to panic. If you are eligible, unemployment benefits will be retroactive to the date you last worked, and many states have eliminated the one week waiting period to collect benefits. 

If you need to discuss your claim, try calling early or late in the day or on weekends, if the call center is open then. Follow your state's department of labor on social media and send direct messages if you can. @NYSDOL, for example, has been responsive to Twitter messages.

How do I get the extra unemployment benefits in the coronavirus stimulus package?

More workers, including self-employed and gig workers, are eligible for unemployment. Benefits have been increased to include more weeks, and an extra $600 a week in compensation is being provided through July 31, 2020.

For employees, expanded benefits are available through your standard state unemployment claim. The supplemental payment and extra weeks should be paid automatically.

For longer-term unemployed workers, if your unemployment claim has expired, you will need to open a new claim. If your claim is still valid, but you have exhausted all your weeks of unemployment or didn’t use them, you may be able to start certifying for benefits immediately.

Should I even look for a job now?

AD: It depends on your personal circumstances:

  • Are you able to collect unemployment?
  • Can you access emergency funds to help pay the bills?
  • Do you have family you need to care for
  • Are you in an occupation that’s hiring or in one that’s cutting back?

If you can get by without getting a new job right away, you may want to consider waiting to start a job search. Give yourself some time to regroup and grieve for the job you just lost. You don’t have to start looking right away, but you can get prepared. Refresh your resume and LinkedIn profile, and get set for when you’re ready to move ahead.

Susan Heathfield: My own company, TechSmith Corp., is aggressively looking for new employees.

Some other companies are hiring—most notably, Amazon. They hired 175,000 logistics people and are looking to hire 20,000 tech people. Other big companies (Facebook, Google, and Apple) are also hiring. Of course, many companies are also laying people off, so it may be more challenging to find a job now than it was before the coronavirus shutdown.

Does being laid off make it harder to find a job?

AD: With millions of other people out of work too, it’s not going to be an issue.

I’ve seen an outpouring of support on LinkedIn from people who want to help laid-off workers by offering resources, sharing information on who’s hiring, and referring candidates to jobs.

The fact that so many people are out of work is a concern, however, because there will be more competition for available jobs as the economy ramps back up. On the upside, a layoff can be an opportunity to bolster your resume and expand your skill set by taking online classes. That will help make you a more competitive candidate. It will also give you information to share with interviewers when you’re asked about what you did during the shutdown.

SH: In normal times, employers want to hire people who are currently employed.

This is because some research shows that the employees who are most successful in a new job are people who were performing a similar job in a different company. However, so many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus closures that many hiring managers will be interested in hiring people who lost their jobs. They know that these people did nothing wrong and are anxious and ready to go back to work.

If you've recently been laid-off, don't panic. Here are some things you should do.

What are the best resources available to help me find a job?

AD: One of the best resources you can use to find a job is your own career network.

If you’ve lost your job, tell them you’re looking, and someone may be able to assist you with a referral or give you a reference.

Start with the top job sites and set up job alerts to notify you about new postings. Most of the major job sites also have free apps you can download to expedite your job search.

Another way to find new listings fast is to search using hashtags such as #hiringnow and #hiring on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media sites.

Even if you’re a not-so-recent graduate, check with your college career center to see what services they provide to alumni. Many schools are offering virtual career advice and job search assistance.

SH: The most important factor in getting a job is to have the knowledge, skills, experience, and abilities necessary to do the job.

That doesn't change in the current crisis. Make sure your resume highlights your accomplishments and not just your assignments or job titles. Accomplishments capture an employer’s attention. If you can use networking to get a job, that is also helpful. If you can get a personal recommendation from a person the hiring manager knows and trusts, that can help you get a job.

How can I get a remote job?

AD: If you have remote experience, mention it on your resume to show the hiring manager that you’d be easy to bring on board.

If you haven’t worked remotely before, here’s information on how to get started

Check websites such as Remote.co and FlexJobs that focus on remote job lists. Target industries with a high percentage of remote workers to up your chances of success.

Be prepared for phone and video interviews. Set up and test video platforms such as Zoom, Skype, WebEx, and GoToMeeting. Do a practice session to be sure you’re comfortable with the technology.

Have an interview outfit picked out, so you'll be ready to make the best impression. It’s still important to be professional, even if the hiring process is remote.

SH: Right now, with COVID-19, according to a survey by Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, 98% of companies have at least some work-at-home posts.

In my own company, all employees have been working from home since the beginning of the crisis. Employers will consider the exact factors that they consider when deciding to hire an onsite employee when deciding to hire a remote employee. So, right now many companies are looking to hire remote employees. 

What should I do if my company has to implement pay cuts?

AD: Many companies are cutting pay in response to the pandemic, with the goal of keeping employees on payroll (and covered by employee benefit plans) even though it’s at a reduced pay rate.

Unless you’re covered by an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement that says otherwise, a company can cut your pay.

If it’s difficult for you to get by on the reduced rate, you may be eligible for partial unemployment benefits. In most states, your work schedule would need to be cut as well, however, because eligibility is typically based on hours worked rather than compensation.

SH: Companies institute pay cuts for several reasons:

  • Decreased revenue without a decrease in workload
  • As a way to keep as many employees working as possible, they will cut salaries across the board rather than terminate employees.
  • As part of a reduction in work hours.

Employers must tell employees in advance of any pay cut. If the pay cut is significant and/or is also a cut in hours, employees may be eligible for a partial unemployment insurance payment through a state's Workshares program. Additionally, it's important to tell employees if this pay cut is temporary or permanent. If you expect the pay cut to be temporary, explain when the company will restore the old salaries.

How should I approach a voluntary pay cut?

AD: Before you agree to a voluntary pay cut, consider your options:

Can you afford it? If not, you may be able to negotiate another amount. Can you get a commitment that your pay will revert to your former rate after a specific date? Talk to your human resources (HR) department about whether there is any flexibility with the amount and duration of the pay cut and if there is a plan in place to return salaries to pre-pay cut rates.

Even if it’s voluntary, if your hours are cut along with your salary, you may be eligible for unemployment to help make up some of the difference. Check with your state unemployment office for eligibility guidelines.

SH: Employees have the option to say no, but the consequence may be layoffs.

Layoffs are rarely in the interest of employees and their colleagues. They leave so much more work for the remaining employees to do and the people who remain following a layoff experience survivor’s guilt.

To help retain the employees, consider offering something in exchange for the pay cut—reduced hours, job security, or stock options are options to consider.

How long can employees stay on furlough?

AD: How long you’ll be furloughed is up to your employer.

In some cases, a furlough is for a definite period of time. In others, it could be until further notice.

If you’re furloughed, you should be advised by your company’s human resources (HR) department or your manager on the length of the furlough, and you should be notified if the end date changes. If you’re not sure of your status, ask your employer for an update.

Keep in mind that you may be eligible for unemployment benefits if you’re furloughed from your job. You can also look for a new position: You’re not obligated to stay with your current company.

SH: There are no limits in federal law on the lengths of time an employee can stay furloughed.

However, for exempt employees, the furlough needs to be in full-week increments. For example, if an exempt employee works four hours on Tuesday, he or she receives pay for the entire week, regardless of whether they did any work. For non-exempt employees, furloughs can be of any length and they receive pay only for the time worked.

Can I get a temporary job while on furlough?

AD: You may not be able to get a temporary job while you’re furloughed.

If you are covered by an employment agreement, it may preclude your taking outside employment. It will stipulate what you can—and can’t—do while you’re still considered employed. Also, if health insurance and other benefits are being continued, there may be guidelines you need to follow regarding taking a temporary job or gig work. 

SH: As a general rule yes, your time is your own during a furlough.

However, some companies and employers will require you to notify them before accepting a new job. In these cases, if the new job competes with their company, they may require you to choose between the furlough from your current job and the new job.

Should I be receiving hazard pay as an essential worker?

AD: Given the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, I think all essential workers should be eligible for hazard pay.

However, your employer most likely isn’t required to give it to you unless you have an employment contract or are covered by a union bargaining agreement that provides it. 

Many companies with frontline workers are providing incentive pay due to hazardous working conditions. That pay could be an increase in the hourly rate, or it might be paid as a bonus.

SH: Federal law doesn't require hazard pay for any non-governmental employee, regardless of the circumstances.

Some companies do offer hazard pay when they believe employees are at risk. Other companies, for example, grocery stores in Michigan, are equipping employees with protective equipment to do curbside grocery delivery. Some allow employees to keep their tips and others are pooling the tips to provide motivational parties for employees at work.

What can I do if I don’t feel comfortable working?

AD: If you’re not comfortable working under the current conditions, talk to your manager or human resources (HR) department and ask about personal protective equipment (PPE) and whatever else you need.

Many employers of workers on the frontlines of the pandemic are providing PPE to employees and changing workflows to protect essential workers. 

If you still don’t feel safe, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits under the new federal guidelines. One of the qualifying reasons is leaving your job due to the risk of exposure or infection, but requirements vary by state.

Before you quit your job, check your state unemployment guidelines to ensure that it’s an acceptable reason for leaving. You may also need to meet minimum work and pay requirements to be eligible for benefits.

SH: Most likely you are an at-will employee.

If you do not feel comfortable working, you are always free to quit your job. Your company does not have to accommodate your request for furlough or paid time off. However, there are some protections under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) that may provide you some time off if you are healthy but need to care for children. 

If your job can be done remotely, you may be able to work from home, even as an essential employee. Speak with your manager to see what you can arrange. Employers are tending to treat employees with kindness during this crisis. This includes employers who believe that their teamwork culture requires employees to work in the office for success.

Have more questions?

Email us at faq@thebalance.com for a chance to have your questions answered by our experts.

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