How to Help Employees Navigate Unemployment During COVID-19

By Katie Navarra April 9, 2020
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​As coronavirus-related claims for unemployment insurance reach historic levels, state systems are overwhelmed, laid-off workers are frustrated, and anxiety is mounting.

Employers can't solve all these problems, but they can provide support to make the employees' transition as smooth as possible. That begins by recognizing there may be a stigma around collecting unemployment benefits even in these unique times.

"For generations it's been embedded in our culture that it's shameful to collect unemployment," said Deb Best, SHRM-SCP, a consultant near Schenectady, N.Y. "As HR professionals, we have to help normalize it."

What Can Employees Expect?

The unknown is frightening. HR professionals won't have all the answers, especially as state and federal orders and relief benefits change daily, or hourly. Best recommends sharing what is known and giving individuals an idea of what they can expect when they apply for unemployment.

[SHRM members-only sample form: Notice of Temporary Layoff or Furlough Due to Coronavirus]

"Be honest and let them know that telephone lines and websites are overwhelmed," she said. "Let them know what is going on."

Share the good news as well. For example, in New York, waiting periods have been waived, and the benefit is retroactive to the last day worked. Even if it takes a few days for people to file, they're not losing money for those days.

Many states require that applicants for unemployment insurance submit a letter of termination, even if it's in an e-mail. "The word termination is the worst to use right now. The term to use is 'lack-of-work notice,' " Best said. "Have a well-written letter that is short and includes that the notice is because of the governor's executive order [for people to stay home] and the lack of work, and include some of the benefits employees are eligible for."


SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Offer Guidance

An estimated 40 percent of employees live paycheck to paycheck, according to Best. The minute people in this situation hear they are losing their job, anxiety about bills sets in. An HR manager can help by offering a prepared list of resources. (For example, two laid-off bartenders in Boston had very different experiences with unemployment. One had HR support; the other did not.)

For example, let employees know about the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits mandated by recent federal legislation and about the income tax filing deadline being moved from April 15 to July 15, 2020. Inform them of any local protections against evictions and let them know they can work on payment plans with credit card companies and apply for special loans through local banks.

"They may not be ready to hear this from you when you tell them they are being laid off, but, if you have it prepared for them, they can have it available when they are ready," she said.

The reason for these layoffs is unprecedented, said Best, whose great-grandfather died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Therefore, it's imperative to be compassionate and show empathy when notifying employees of a layoff or furlough.

Best encourages clients to communicate with employees about how much their work is appreciated.

"Tell them 'You are valued, and you are doing a great job,' if they are. This has nothing to do with them personally," she said. "Tell them your intention is to hire them back, if it is, when possible without offering a guarantee."

Each person will react to the news of a layoff or furlough differently. Some will want to get their notice and leave as quickly as possible with little exchange. Others will be angry, and some may cry. Best advised HR professionals not to internalize it.

"If someone is screaming at you, you can't take it personally. There is a need underneath all that yelling," she said. "Tell the person, 'I hear you' and then ask what they need. They may need something you can't give them."

Leaning on a mentor is essential for anyone who is laying off staff for the first time, according to Best.

"If you as an HR person are too panicked to handle yourself, you need to get a buddy. Otherwise you won't be able to help the employees," she said. "The way employees are treated now will be remembered from a morals and values standpoint when this is all over."

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.

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