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The Five W’s of the CARES Act for Small Business Owners

Jason Fry
Updated Sep 20, 2022

Here's a breakdown of the "who, what, when, where and why" every business owner should know about the unemployment provisions in the CARES Act.

  • According to a recent study published by the NFIB in late March 2020, 76% of small businesses are negatively impacted by the outbreak of the coronavirus.
  • Enacted on March 27, 2020, the CARES Act includes several provisions addressing the expansion of unemployment benefits and eligibility.
  • There are five key ways the CARES ACT legislation affects small and medium employers.

Small businesses are negatively impacted by the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has created tremendous disruption in workforces across the country as employers adjust to a rapidly changing social and economic environment. Preliminary results from a March 2020 survey conducted by the SMB Group indicated that more than one-half of small and medium businesses have already or are planning to lay off salaried employees, and/or to reduce their hours. Data from an April 3, 2020, survey reports that 33% already have.

For employers nationwide, the process of separating employees during this time also means handling the resulting unemployment claims now and anticipating the recalculation of payroll taxes in the future.

The CARES Act includes new provisions for unemployment benefits

On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law, containing over $2 trillion in relief for American workers and small businesses. The stimulus package included new and fairly extensive guidance around unemployment insurance (UI) programs. Those programs are administered at the state level, usually based on a fund created through the payroll taxes paid by employers. Many of those state guidelines are changing due to the CARES Act provisions, and employers large and small are adjusting how they respond to unemployment claims.

Title II, Section A of the CARES Act, named the “Relief for Workers Affected by Coronavirus Act,” provides for substantial expansion of existing unemployment insurance and benefits programs. There are 16 sections in the act that offer new programs as well as additional guidance for unemployment claims related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation affects eligibility requirements, the monetary benefits paid to employees and outlines who will be charged for those payments.

The Department of Labor is charged with issuing clarification and further guidance to the states for the CARES Act, and they continue to do so. For now, here are some suggestions for things small business owners should know about the CARES Act and unemployment claims filed by employees.

The unemployment who, what, when, where and why of the CARES Act

The “who”

The CARES Act expands on “who” is eligible to apply for unemployment. Though exceptions may apply based on state guidelines, small business owners will need to be mindful that the following employees are included among those eligible to collect unemployment insurance payments under the CARES Act:

  • Employees laid off due to state-mandated closures
  • Employees laid off due to COVID-19 within their location
  • Employees laid off due to pure reduction in force
  • Employees quarantined due to COVID-19, including if they are:
    • Living with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID -19
    • Providing care for someone diagnosed with COVID-19
    • Providing care for a child who can’t attend school because it is closed due to COVID-19
    • Employees with a reduction in hours
    • Employees that were working full-time and are now working reduced hours

Finally, “who” is not covered. The CARES Act explicitly excludes from coverage people who have the ability to work remotely with pay and individuals who are receiving paid sick leave or other benefits (even if they would otherwise qualify for unemployment under the CARES Act).

The “what”

What is in the CARES Act that affects employers? For organizations, small and large, as well as certain nonprofits, the CARES Act expands existing unemployment benefits in two material ways, assuming the state agencies enter into an agreement with the Department of Labor:

  1. The Pandemic Unemployment provisions provide for an extra $600 weekly payment to recipients, in addition to the weekly benefit amount an eligible employee otherwise receives under state law.  This incremental weekly payment will be funded by the federal government and not charged to the employers state UI funds or certain nonprofits.
  2. Regular state UI can be collected for a period of 10 to 26 weeks, generally (depending on your state’s regulations). Under the CARES Act, an individual could collect benefits for an additional 13 weeks beyond their state’s typical maximum allowance. Again, these additional weeks will be funded by allocations in the CARES Act and not charged to employers’ state UI funds.

For certain nonprofits that have opted out of state unemployment insurance, the CARES Act provides for federal reimbursement of 50% of the unemployment compensation until December 31, 2020.

The legislation does offer an option for all employers who choose to reduce hours rather than separate employees. The CARES Act makes funding available to support “short-term compensation” (STC) programs, where employers can apply for state approval to reduce wages and hours for affected workers. Those workers then become eligible to receive partial/pro-rated unemployment benefits. These programs require specific application and approval from the states, but if approved, the CARES Act establishes 100% funding for payments under STC programs through December 31, 2020.

The “when”

Although the stimulus package was passed on March 27, 2020, states had to wait until the federal Department of Labor issued guidance on the extra funds and provisions.  States are now starting to activate and legislate revisions to their programs related to the CARES Act.

A potentially immediate benefit offered by the CARES Act is an incentive to states that ordinarily have a one-week waiting period to waive that requirement. Under the Act, the federal government will reimburse 100% of the benefits paid during the first week of an individual’s unemployment, if a state waives its waiting period.

The other “when” that small business employers need to be mindful of are response deadlines when unemployment claims come in.  Once an employer receives notice of an employee’s claim from the state, they are required to respond within a state-mandated time frame, usually within10 days.  In addition, UI integrity laws adopted by all 53 jurisdictions require a response to every claim. Knowing the requirements is important for small business owners who may suddenly have multiple claims to respond to in a short period of time.

The “where”

Business location is important, since unemployment insurance programs (and the related payroll taxes used to create the state unemployment funds) are governed by the states. While many small businesses operate from one state/one location, others may have operations and expansions into other states.  The implementation of the unemployment provisions made available through the timing of the rollout of the CARES Act provisions depends entirely on the state guidelines issued in response to the provisions in the legislation.

Employers need to be mindful of the changes that are specific to claims filed in the states where they operate. Equifax Workforce Solutions maintains a free CARES Act State-by-State Quick Tip Guide to help organizations stay up to date.

The “why”

While employers are still responsible for regular UI benefits, unless the states where they operate have implemented a relief of charge action, the CARES Act was designed to help employees, employers, and states manage through a time of significant and immediate need.

Business owners of small to medium-sized businesses should continue to pay close attention to the new guidance issued by the states, and consult with legal counsel as needed, to best serve their impacted employees.

At the same time, employers need to be mindful of the potentially changing status of their employer tax accounts and future payroll tax rates and payments. Finding resources to help manage through this time period will be key. Many vendors, like Equifax, offer unemployment claims management for small and medium-sized businesses. And several are offering resources to help employers in the form of webinars or blogs.

For small and medium businesses, dealing with this likely significant increase in employee separations and claims, considering both short- and long-term implications, will be important to help maintain the integrity of the business through the pandemic and its aftermath.

Image Credit:

fizkes / Getty Images

Jason Fry
Jason Fry has over 15 years of experience in pre-employment regulatory compliance with specific focus in employee screening and work eligibility verification. He is responsible for guiding the strategic direction and financial performance of the state and federal tax credits and incentives services. He also focuses on compliance and risk mitigation for workforce regulatory issues, guiding development of Form I-9 and E-Verify product enhancements. Earlier in his career, Jason worked for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, Georgia State University’s College of Law, the Clayton County Solicitor General’s Office and a private civil litigation law firm. Jason received his law degree from Georgia State University and is a member of the State Bar of Georgia.