Unemployment Insurance Benefits & COVID-19

by Madison Fiedler-Carlson

This is a difficult time, even without anxiety over whether you will be able to pay your bills. 

Many people believe that you have to be, well, unemployed in order to qualify for Unemployment Insurance in Iowa.  Fortunately, that is not the case.

Due to the threat of COVID-19, on March 17, Governor Reynolds issued a State of Public Health Disaster Emergency, ordering gyms, bars, and restaurants to close.  While restaurants and bars may continue to sell take-out or carry-out food, many other businesses were ordered to close altogether.  Governor Reynolds also prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.

While some employees can work remotely, not everyone can.  We all have friends who are bartenders, who set up for local bands, or who work in the restaurant industry.  Some employers are placing their employees on paid leave, but not all employers can or will do that.  For the next two weeks, and potentially longer, a large section of our workforce won’t be able to work.  However, they will still have bills to pay.

This is where Unemployment Insurance comes in.

Unemployment Insurance provides temporary financial assistance to workers who have lost their jobs.  Under Iowa law, many employees may qualify for unemployment even if they have not been fired.  To qualify, you must:

  • Have earned a specific amount at your employer over the last five calendar quarters, called a “base period.”  You must have made at least $1,430 in your highest-paid quarter and at least $720 in the lowest-paid quarter.
  • Be out of work through no fault of your own.  This includes layoffs (even temporary ones), a reduction-in-force, or downsizing.  It even includes being fired as long as you weren’t fired for misconduct.  “Misconduct” can mean violence, threats of violence, failing to follow rules, insubordination, or repeated unexcused absences.  If you quit your job, you usually will not qualify for employment unless you had a very good reason for quitting, such as your employer asking you to do something illegal or dangerous, or if you were being subjected to sexual harassment.

Working significantly reduced hours counts under this requirement.  This means if your employer doesn’t have work for you because of the COVID-19 regulations, you will qualify for this requirement even though you have not been fired.

You may also qualify for partial Unemployment benefits if your employer cut your hours or only has part-time work available.  However, if you voluntarily chose to reduce your hours—i.e., telling your employer that you can no longer work full-time, or that you have to stay home—you may not qualify.

Refusing to work because you are afraid of coming in contact with COVID-19 does not qualify under this requirement.

Usually, Unemployment Insurance requires that you be available to work, able to work, and looking for work.  However, if you lost your job or cannot work because of COVID-19, Iowa Workforce Development has waived this requirement.

If you cannot go to work because you are self-quarantining, you have COVID-19, or you may have been exposed to COVID-19, your employer can require you to stay home for 2 weeks.  You should first check if there’s any way you can perform your job remotely.  If you can work from home, you may not be able to receive Unemployment benefits because you would not count as “unemployed.”


Assuming you qualify for Unemployment Insurance, Iowa Workforce Development will calculate the amount you receive by using your highest quarter wages and will depend on how many dependents you have.  Iowa Workforce Development allows you to apply online.

If your job has been affected by COVID-19, you should visit the Unemployment Insurance website for more information and consider applying for benefits.

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