Since March 2020, Rhode Island's unemployment rate has increased significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic. As millions have yet to go back to work, the federal government has stepped in with legislation to help workers financially in every state by creating programs to extend benefits to those who are ordinarily eligible. It also gives unemployment compensation during this unprecedented time to those who would typically not be able to receive them.
Eligibility for Rhode Island Unemployment Insurance
Workers who apply for unemployment insurance (UI) in Rhode Island must meet its eligibility requirements to receive benefits. The applicant must:
- Earn at least $12,120 in the standard base period, the first four of five calendar quarters, before filing the
claim. Earn a minimum of $4,040 during the entire base period, plus a minimum of $2,020 during the base period's highest-paid quarter, or a minimum of 1.5 times the earnings in the highest-paid quarter. Show consistent availability and willingness to work while collecting benefits.
The reason for the applicant's termination is also important. If a claimant lost work through no fault of their own – layoffs, a reduction in force or work hours, for example – they can receive UI benefits. If they quit for good cause, they can also receive benefits. Some examples of this are leaving a domestic violence situation or suffering a sexual assault at work.
Claimants cannot get benefits if they were fired for misconduct, which is the intentional disregard or violation of an employer's interests. If they weren't a good fit to begin with or didn't have the skills required for the job, they still might be eligible.
Amount and Duration of Unemployment Insurance Benefits
Rhode Island calculates a claimant's benefits and their duration on the standard base period or on an alternate base period if they don't have enough wages. The alternate period is the last four total calendar quarters before the applicant filed for UI. The weekly benefit for eligible claimants is 3.5 percent of their average quarterly earnings in the two quarters where they earned the most. UI benefits in Rhode Island range from $33 to $599 per week.
Rhode Island is one of the few states that pays a dependents' allowance to applicants with children under 18 years old or children over 18 with disabilities. This amounts to an additional $15 or 5 percent per week per dependent for up to five dependents. Claimants can get benefits for up to 26 weeks during a low or normal unemployment period. In periods with higher unemployment, claimants can receive an increase in benefits and duration.
Filing the First UI Claim
Before filing a claim, applicants must create an account on the Department of Labor and Training (DLT) website. Those without internet access can call the DLT at 401-415-6772 for guidance on other options. Creating an account is not filing for benefits, but it is the first step in getting them.
The DLT needs complete information to process a claim promptly; if anything is missing, the application can take longer. The claimant's contact information, Social Security number, date of birth, military or union information if applicable, and employment status are just some things the DLT requires to get a claim moving through the system. When filing their initial claim, applicants must also include:
- Past 18 months of wages.
- Reason for job termination.
- Work availability.
- Citizenship or legal work status.
- Employer's contact information.
Reasons for Delayed UI Processing
In some instances, an applicant may see a delay in their claim. There are a number of reasons for this, but they should not contact the DLT to ask about their status. The DLT will contact the applicant if they need more information.
A claim delay occurs in certain circumstances:
- DLT must confirm out-of-state wages: Wage records from other states can cause a slow down in the approval process.
- DLT must calculate from an alternate base period: The claimant did not earn enough to qualify for calculation in the standard base period, in which case, the agency may have to wait until the beginning of the next quarter to review the claimant's wage records.
- Errors were made by the applicant while inputting the initial claim.
- There are questions about a claimants eligibility.
Certifying for Weekly Benefits
Every two weeks, applicants must certify their claims to receive benefits. They must show that they are able and available should work arise. If they are not, they must explain why, as availability or lack of it impacts how much money they receive.
If they took work during their benefit week, they must report how many hours they worked and how much they earned. If they worked full time and earnings exceeded the benefit amount, they will not receive benefits for that week. However, if they worked just a few hours and didn't make more than what their benefit allows, they will receive reduced payments to make up the difference.
In times of normal unemployment, claimants must apply for jobs at least three times a week, keep a written record of their work search and report this to the DLT. This must include the employer's contact information, the date they applied, how they applied the position's title. If they receive documentation from a potential employer, they should keep it for their records. Applicants can also post their resumes or search for work on the state job website, www.employri.org. Note that the state has waived the job search requirement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How to Receive UI Benefits
The applicant will get their weekly benefits in one of two ways – via direct bank deposit or a debit (EPC) card. To do this, they must fill out a Benefit Payment Selection or Change Form. The deposit to a bank account or EPC card takes about 24 to 48 business hours after payment authorization.
Those electing to use direct deposit must put their bank account and routing number on the form. Those who apply the benefit deposit to their checking account can also attach a voided check to the form. In both instances, claimants must sign and date the application before submitting it.
Stopping or Pausing an Unemployment Claim
When an applicant becomes eligible for UI, they will receive a notice after their initial application, with a Return to Work Form. When a claimant no longer needs their benefits as a result of finding full-time work, they fill out this form and send it to the DOL's Unemployment Insurance Service Center at: Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, Unemployment Insurance Division, PO Box 20340, Cranston, RI, 02920-0943. The form should list the start date of the applicant's new job and the contact information for their new employer. It also allows the applicant to request any outstanding payments.
An applicant who goes back to work full time and becomes unemployed again will have to open a new claim. However, someone who returns to work part time can continue to collect benefits, provided they are less than the benefit amount.
Funding from Federal Programs
The COVID-19 pandemic caused many Rhode Islanders to lose their jobs overnight, beginning in March 2020. With the DLT stretched to the limit with millions of new claims, the federal government stepped in with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act to financially aid those who needed it. It included several programs to extend UI payments or give them to those who don't usually receive them. Independent contractors, for example, received money from the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) fund. The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) extended state benefits to normal UI recipients by an extra 13 weeks.
The CARES Act ended on March 13, 2021, but its programs continue with the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan Act, which went into effect as the CARES Act ended. Pandemic benefits are set to continue until the first week of September 2021. The American Rescue Plan Act also adds an extra $300 a week to UI, PUA, and PEUC benefits, as many people have yet to return to work. Also included as part of the American Rescue Plan Act was a one-time stimulus payment of $1,400.
UI Fraud and Its Consequences
When an unemployed person certifies for benefits each week, they must be honest when they answer the DLT's questions; doing otherwise is fraud. Claimants can commit fraud by:
- Giving false job search information.
- Being unavailable yet claiming availability, such as reporting availability while out of town or otherwise incapacitated.
- Not reporting work hours or not declaring fewer hours.
- Not reporting workers' compensation, cash earnings, back pay, retirement or pension earnings.
- Falsifying their identity to receive benefits.
The person perpetrating fraudulent claims will not only have to repay benefits, but may also face criminal prosecution and subsequent penalties, which can include incarceration and fines. Applicants who have questions about fraud should call the DLT at 401-462-1522.
Repaying Overpaid Benefits
If the DLT asks a claimant to repay benefits, they must do so, no matter the reason for the overpayment. If they don't, the agency can recover them through future benefits, tax refunds (both federal and state), garnished wages and even lottery winnings. It can even refer the claimant to a collection agency. Claimants who committed fraud or otherwise misrepresented themselves will owe not only the benefit amount but an additional 18 percent interest for as long as there is an outstanding balance.
The applicant must begin benefit repayment to the DLT within 60 days of the mailing date of the overpayment notification. Applicants must also notify the department of any address changes. Payments can be made by check or money order and mailed to the RI Department of Labor and Training, Overpayment Unit, PO Box 20380, Cranston, RI 02920.
Appealing UI Benefit Denial
If there is a question about an applicant's eligibility, they may face a denial of benefits; in this case, the DLT will request a hearing. The claimant may introduce witnesses and documents to support their claim for benefits. If the DLT denies their benefits, the claimant can appeal that decision. They can do this online or by mail to the Central Adjudication Unit, PO Box 20067, Cranston, RI 02920-0941 or by fax to 401-462-8318. While this process occurs, claimants should continue to certify as they usually would, since they may receive the benefits at the end of the process.
When the DLT receives an appeal request, it will assign a hearing officer from the Board of Review to look over the claimant's information and schedule a hearing. The Board of Review is an impartial authority which does not act under the direction of the DLT. An investigator will contact both the claimant and their former employer to help with case research. The claimant will receive written notification of that decision.
If benefit denial occurs a second time, the claimant can appeal it within 15 days from the notice's date by mailing or faxing their appeal to the Central Adjudication Unit.
- EmployiRi.org: Rhode Island Is Working Together
- Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training: Return to Work Form
- Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training: Unemployment Insurance FAQ
- Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training: Benefit Payment Selection or Change Form
- Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training: UI Fraud
- NOLO: Collecting Unemployment Benefits in Rhode Island
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.