Coping with COVID-19 and Cancer: Changes to Unemployment Guidelines and Impacts on Health Insurance


Many folks, including cancer survivors, have suddenly found themselves out of work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the Federal government passed the CARES act in late March to expand eligibility, payments, and length of time for unemployment claims. This bill created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program (PUA). Another result of this bill: individuals who would not have been eligible for unemployment BEFORE the pandemic are now eligible.  These include folks who are self-employed, independent contractors, and individuals who have exhausted their rights to regular/extended unemployment benefits. This includes “gig” workers who are usually classified as independent contractors or freelance workers.

Some 16 million individuals filed for unemployment compensation since the CARES act was passed. Apply as soon as you become unemployed. You should apply in the state where you worked. Because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, you need to apply online. Online systems in most states are overwhelmed and crashing regularly. Pack your patience and have all of your information and documentation you need ready to go when you apply. This includes personal information like your social security number, date of birth, address, phone number, your employer’s full address and federal employer ID number (if you have it) and your bank account information for direct deposit (not available in every state).

Remember that the CARES act is a FEDERAL law; whereas unemployment insurance is a state-run program. As a result, the system and rules for eligibility vary widely from one state to another. 

Who is eligible?

  • You must be unemployed, partially employed, or unable to work for specific reasons due to COVID-19 including
    • Being diagnosed with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms and seeking medical care/diagnosis.
    • Have a member of your household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
    • Be a caregiver for a family or household member who has COVID-19.
    • Be a caregiver of a child or household member who cannot attend a school or another facility that is closed as a result of COVID-19.
    • You are unable to get to your place of employment due to imposed quarantine OR you were advised to self-quarantine by a healthcare provider.
    • You were scheduled to start a new job but due to COVID-19 cannot reach the job.
    • An individual (who was not employed previously) because of the death of the breadwinner/head of household due to COVID-19. 
    • You had to quit your job as a result of COVID-19.
    • Your place of work closed as a result of COVID-19.

Who is NOT eligible?

  • Individuals who can telecommute or who are receiving paid sick leave OR other paid leave benefits CANNOT receive unemployment benefits.

How much will I be paid?

  • Weekly benefits will equal what you would have been paid in unemployment benefits before the pandemic PLUS an additional $600 per week through July 31, 2020.

How long can I collect benefits?

  • Under the PUA, you can collect benefits for a maximum of 39 weeks between January 27, 2020, and December 31, 2020.

Is there a waiting period before I can collect benefits?

  • Maybe-it depends on your state’s unemployment policies; though states were incentivized by the Federal government to waive waiting period requirements.

What about the health insurance I had through my employer?

  • After you lose your job, your employer MAY offer you COBRA health insurance continuation. This is dependent on the size of the employer. Learn more about COBRA coverage here.
  • However, COBRA insurance can be very expensive. 
  • Currently, there is no plan for COBRA payment relief/assistance at the Federal level as there was during the 2008 recession. Congress may include such a plan at a later date.
  • Losing your insurance DOES trigger a special enrollment period for the healthcare market place, Healthcare.gov—allowing you to purchase an “Obamacare” plan. You may also be eligible for tax credits, subsidies, and cost-sharing assistance.
  • Unemployment benefits are taxable, but will not be included in income allowance for Medicaid or CHIP eligibility.

Cancer patients and survivors who have lost work due to COVID-19 or who are unable to work due to being at a higher risk for significant health problems due to COVID-19 should apply for unemployment and secure some level of financial assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Social workers and navigators are working in cancer centers and are available to help you with these applications. Don’t forget several emergency funds are also available for cancer patients coping with COVID-19. Learn more here.

16 thoughts on “Coping with COVID-19 and Cancer: Changes to Unemployment Guidelines and Impacts on Health Insurance

  1. Can I get unemployment insurance , I am not let go or laid off but have to remain quarantined due to employees at work testing positive for COVID 19. I have no income and dr note says I can not go in due to Cancer diagnosis.

    1. Michele
      You will probably be eligible with your doctor’s note. Remember that unemployment is STATE based and the CARES Act is a federal law–so your state may have more specific guidelines about your eligibility. I would contact the board the oversees unemployment in your state about your specific situation.
      Christina-psychosocial content editor

    2. This is the language regarding eligibility
      “To qualify for PUA benefits, you must not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits and be unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of certain health or economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.” You are unable to work due to health consequences of COVID-19.

  2. My husband has cancer I am the primary care taker…I can’t work around people because he can’t get the corona virus he has stage 4 metastatic lung cancer do I qualify for gov. Unemployment benefits

    1. Terry. Maybe. It depends on if your state has expanded unemployment for individuals who are caring for a high risk individual. You will need documentation from your husband’s care team to support your claim.
      You can find more information here https://esd.wa.gov/newsroom/covid-19-worker-information
      I recommend you contact your state unemployment compensation office directly.

      1. Remember every state has their own rules for who is eligible for unemployment; please contact the Unemployment Office in your state directly about your eligibility.

  3. I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer Nov. 23,2019 had surgery Nov.25 going through chemo been off work since the 11-21-19 without pay. I work in the school system as a custodian have 3 more rounds of chemo 12 rounds total due to the flu and covid19 my doctor will not let me return to work how and where can I get assistance

    1. Please check out our emergency financial assistance for cancer patients
      https://www.oncolink.org/support/resources/coping-with-covid-19/covid-19-emergency-financial-assistance-for-people-with-cancer

      With your provider’s support, given your immuno-compromised state, you MAY be eligible for unemployment depending on where you live. You should contact the unemployment benefits office in the state where you live. You may also want to consider applying for social security disability, depending on how long your care team feels you will be out of work (the general rule is out of work for 1 year and you have already been off for 6 months. Learn more about disability in this article
      https://www.oncolink.org/support/insurance-legal-employment-financial-concerns/employment-concerns/disability-options

      Be sure to talk with the social worker at your treatment center as well.

  4. hello i have cancer stage 4 age 80 my wife just got a email the center could be opening up in two weeks please advise be well! be safe!!thank you

    1. Robert Please talk with your care team about returning to the center for treatment as well as what precautions they have put in place to keep you safe. Most facilities that are “re-opening” for care at this point have well thought out plans for screening, testing if necessary, masks and other precautions.
      Be safe!

    2. i gave you the wrong inf my cancer dr does not wANT her going back to the child day center for health concer s for stage four lung cancer age 80 AND BASED ON THST TO CONTINUE TO COLLECT UE PLEASE ADVISE thank you robert pisani

      1. Thanks for your comment! Please get documentation from your provider about her continued risk and contact your state’s unemployment agency.
        We will also be posting a blog tomorrow with more about unemployment and the reopening of the country.

  5. I was diagnosed with Myelofibrosis at the beginning of all this covid shut downs. My place of employment had also shut down a few days after, however applying for unemployment has been unsuccessful as they stated I was not able in unavailable to work since I was diagnosed with cancer I was an able and available to work so I didn’t get a dime since February. I am still waiting to see if SSI or disability will kick in so far nothing. I’m on the verge of losing everything my apartment shut off’s, My place of employment had also shut down a few days after, however applying for unemployment has been unsuccessful as they stated I was not able in unavailable to work since I was diagnosed with cancer I was an able and available to work so I didn’t get a dime since February. I am still waiting to see if SSI or disability will kick in so far nothing. I’m on the verge of losing everything my apartment shut off’s. The only thing I have right now is medical assistance and food stamps. I keep being told no every direction I go. Hell, even my own family and friends have turned their back on me since knowing my diagnosis it’s like being all alone except one person in my life and that’s it. There’s only so much he can do for me. It’s like cancer scares people, Everyone says they’ll help you but when it comes down to it they all scatter.

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