The coronavirus pandemic has changed the employment landscape in the state of Montana. In March 2020, in this state as around the country, businesses shuttered and millions found themselves without work overnight. As a result of this unexpected and unparalleled event, the federal government enacted legislation to help workers financially. It created programs for those who would not usually be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits to get them and extended benefits for eligible workers.
Montana's UI Eligibility
When someone applies for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in Montana, they must meet the state's eligibility requirements. They are:
- Meeting the income requirement while employed during their base period or alternate base period used to calculate the benefit.
- Job termination must be through no fault of their own or with good cause.
- Worker must show ability and availability to work, and apply for employment while receiving benefits.
Claimants can receive benefits if they lost a job through layoffs or saw a reduction in hours, wages or available work. If the applicant left employment of their own volition and had good cause to do so – for example, if they were a victim of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault, or experienced firing for a reason other than misconduct – they may also receive benefits. However, UI claimants will be ineligible if they:
- Quit work for personal reasons unrelated to their job.
- The state UI agency could not verify their application or résumé.
- Are on a leave of absence that was department-approved.
- Gave the agency inaccurate information or didn't respond to requests.
- Did not file a payment request on time.
- Are unable to work on the days they usually would for their occupation.
- Are a full-time independent contractor.
- Currently receive workers' compensation.
- Will not accept wages equivalent to those from their last employer.
- Refuse to work 40 hours a week.
- Haven't completed registering for benefits.
- Aren't working as the result of a strike or union dispute.
Unemployment Insurance Benefit Amount and Duration
Montana calculates an applicant's benefits and the duration of their claim on a base period, which is the first four of the last five complete quarters before the claimant applied for benefits. In the event an applicant is not eligible under the standard base period, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) will calculate the worker's UI earnings from an alternate base period, which is the final four complete quarters before they filed their claim.
The weekly benefit rate is one percent of the applicant's overall earnings during the base period, or 1.9 percent of their wages in the two calendar quarters in which they earned the most money. Claimants can earn from $151 to $510 per week in UI benefits for up to 28 weeks. However, the state may extend earning weeks in times of high unemployment.
How to Apply for UI
To apply for UI in Montana, applicants must create and complete an account on the DOLI's website, MontanaWorks. Applicants who do not have internet access can sign up by contacting Claims Processing at 406-444-2545. Those who live outside Montana, but have worked in the state, must register with their state's unemployment department. Creating an account is not the same as certifying for benefits; it is just the first step in the process. Claimants still have to file weekly to receive payments.
Information Needed for Filing a Claim
When applying for UI in Montana, the DOLI will need certain information to process the claim. If any of this information is missing, it will take longer to process:
- Claimant's contact information.
- Social Security number.
- Date of birth.
- Employment status.
- Veteran status, if applicable.
The DOLI will investigate claims based on the applicant's information and decide whether or not the person can receive UI benefits. The time this takes varies from person to person and depends on the circumstances of the applicant's unemployment. When filing their first claim, applicants must include the following information:
- Earnings over the past 12 to 18 months.
- Reason for separation from employment.
- Status of availability for work.
- Citizenship or legal work status information.
- Contact information for their most recent employer.
- Information regarding their efforts to find work.
Certifying Ongoing Claims
To keep receiving benefits, Montanans must certify their claims biweekly. They must show their availability to work and if they aren't available, they must report their reasons. They must also show that they are physically and mentally able to work. If they did work on a part-time or temporary basis during the benefit week, they must report those earnings. If they earned too much money, they won't get benefits for that week; if they made less than the benefit amount, they'll get a reduced benefit payment.
Applicants must send at least one application or résumé per week to a potential employer and provide the DOLI with their work search contacts during the week for which they request payment. They cannot send a job application to the same employer for two consecutive weeks unless the positions they apply for are different. Even if they already work part time, they must search for full-time employment or another part-time job that adds up to at least 40 hours a week. Job seekers who do not report this information to the DOLI may not receive benefits for that week.
Receiving UI Payments
The applicant can receive their benefits in several ways – via an ATM debit card, mailed check or through direct bank deposit. UI benefits via direct deposit take one to two business days (depending on the bank), while mailed payments can take longer.
Claimants who want to sign up for direct deposit payments must input their bank account and routing numbers when filing their initial claim. From that point on, it is the claimant's responsibility to keep their contact and bank information up to date.
Stopping a UI Claim
Applicants who no longer need benefits can stop requesting them; their claims become inactive after two weeks. However, if the DOLI contacts them for any reason, they must always reply to avoid a delay or denial of future payments. Claims become inactive when:
- Applicant works full time or their usual number of hours.
- Claimant earned over two times their UI payment amount.
- While certifying their claim, they say no to the question, "Do you want to file for this week?"
Claimants who wish to request benefit payments at a later date must reactivate their claim after it becomes inactive. They cannot receive money on an inactive claim.
Montana UI and COVID-19 Programs
The coronavirus pandemic caused millions across the country to lose their jobs overnight. As a result of sudden high employment, the federal government created the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act to subsidize state UI agencies. The act included several programs to extend benefits or help those who wouldn't usually receive them, such as the self-employed and gig workers.
For example, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) fund made money available to independent contractors, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) extended state benefits to employees impacted by the pandemic for an extra 13 weeks. The CARES Act ended on March 13, 2021, but the Biden administration continued most of its programs through the American Rescue Plan Act, which went into effect at the beginning of March 2021. This legislation extended state and federal UI benefits until the first week of September 2021.
The American Rescue Plan Act gives an additional $300 a week to UI, PUA, and PEUC beneficiaries, as many people have yet to go back to work. Also included in the law was a one-time stimulus payment of $1,400.
Unemployment Insurance Fraud in Montana
When a claimant certifies for weekly benefits, they must give honest answers to the questions the DOLI asks; doing otherwise is illegal and possibly criminal. Claimants can commit fraud in various ways, such as:
- Giving the DOLI false employment search information.
- Claiming work availability while not available, such as while on vacation or injured.
- Falsely reporting work hours or earnings, or not reporting them at all.
- Not reporting workers' compensation payments.
- Not reporting cash earnings.
- Not reporting back pay, pension or retirement earnings.
- Using another's identity to receive benefits.
Since fraud is a crime, the person perpetrating it will not only have to repay the money, but may face criminal prosecution and penalties for felony theft. These can include possible jail time and fines. To report UI fraud or to get more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 406-444-1709.
Overpayment of Benefits
Overpayment of benefits could be the result of fraud or they may result from a DOLI error. In either instance, it is up to the recipient to pay the money back in full.
If there is an overpayment, the DOLI will send a Statement of Benefits Overpayment notice to the claimant with a monthly bill. The agency will also reduce their current payments by 50 percent until the fulfillment of the payments occurs. If the overpayment is the result of fraud, DOLI may withhold the total amount.
If the claimant does not repay the claim within a reasonable amount of time, the DOLI may:
- Send their debt to the Department of Revenue (DOR) to collect the money through interception of other payments, such as a state tax refund. The DOR will also add its collection fees to the amount owed.
- Intercept their federal tax refund.
- File a lean against their property.
- Transfer their debt to a collection agency.
- Intercept their lottery winnings.
- Garnish their wages.
Appealing a Denial of an Unemployment Claim
In some instances, an unemployed person can see their benefits denied by the DOLI. However, they do have the right to file an appeal with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which assigns the claimant to a hearing officer who researches the case and decides if the claimant can receive benefits. The hearing officer cannot discuss the investigation outside of the actual hearing. The state mails its appeal decision to the claimant through a Notice of Determination and a Notice of Redetermination; it will not give the decision over the phone. Claimants can continue to certify for UI while awaiting the hearing officer's decision.
The hearing decision can disqualify the claimant from getting further benefits or allow the charging of benefits to the applicant's former employer. If an applicant is unhappy with the decision, they can file for a second appeal hearing with the Montana Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. The hearing officer will give the claimant further instructions on how to do this when issuing their decision. This information appears under the heading Appeal Rights.
- Montana.gov: Claimant Handbook
- YouTube: How to Register for MontanaWorks
- Montana Works:Advancing Opportunities for Montana Job Seekers
- Montana Dept of Labor and Industry: Unemployment Insurance
- Montana Law Help: DOLI Claimant Handbook
- Montana Dept of Labor and Industry:Work Search Requirements
- NOLO:Collecting Unemployment Benefits in Montana
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.