"Essentially, any employee in Arkansas who has lost work hours through no fault of their own and because of the coronavirus is eligible for unemployment benefits," said Charisse Childers, director of the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services.
Another group of self-employed and individual contract employees, estimated to be about 118,000 workers in Arkansas, also will be eligible for the supplemental payments if they have lost work because of the coronavirus.
"Our plan is to begin making payments as soon as possible -- and some people could receive them by midweek," Childers said Monday. "Anyone who is currently receiving unemployment benefits from the state is eligible for the [federal] payments. They don't have to do anything or refile -- we are taking care of those details. They automatically get the supplemental benefits."
About 37,000 joblessness claims have been filed in Arkansas over the past two weeks. A state economist has estimated the number could reach 117,500 with an unemployment rate peaking at 8.7% this year.
Arkansas unemployment benefits range from $81 to $451 per week, based on a worker's salary history, and are paid out over a 16-week period.
The $600 supplemental federal benefits will be added to a weekly payment from the state. For example, a laid-off worker receiving $400 today would be paid $1,000 per week until July 25.
On March 27, the federal CARES Act was signed into law to provide $2 trillion in relief to battle economic disruptions from the virus. The $600 weekly unemployment benefit for jobless workers across the nation was included in that package. Final regulations were issued over the weekend to guide states in setting up their programs.
For the first time in Arkansas, unemployment benefits are being extended to the self-employed or to individual contractors. They also will receive $600 weekly in federal payments through the state, though Childers said her department will have to build the infrastructure to accept applications and make payments since those workers were not previously eligible for unemployment assistance.
"This is a whole new system we have to put in place," she said. "This is going to be so unique and very different from standard unemployment insurance."
Payments will be set up through either direct deposit or added to a debit card. Self-employed workers and individual contractors will be provided with updates on how to file a claim in the coming weeks, Childers said.
"These are all systems that we have to set up, and we just received the final guidance this weekend," she said. "We hope to have those payments ready to go out by the end of the month, but that's just a ballpark estimate."
The benefits will provide relief for workers who have not been eligible for unemployment payments in the past, said Daniel Sample, who operates SD Sample Productions in Benton.
"I am self-employed and this will be a great help for me to be able to receive the additional unemployment benefits to keep the lights on," Sample said. "We usually are the ones not eligible for anything, including unemployment. It feels good to be included for once."
Supplemental benefits for the self-employed and individual contractor group are broader than traditional unemployment insurance payments. Those workers also will receive $600 per week, but benefits will be paid through the end of the year, expiring on Dec. 31. In addition, the group is eligible to receive another $133 per week because the state has been declared a natural disaster area.
Workers across Central Arkansas will be relieved to gain the extra income, said Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"As many face the uncertainty of when they'll be able to return to full-time work, this extra $600 of weekly federal unemployment benefits will provide much-needed financial resources," he added. "This short-term benefit will help significantly while also providing a little peace of mind for them."
Steve Mosley, who owns and operates Upper Right Leadership in Little Rock, said he is pleased economic relief is on the way.
"As someone who frequently uses individual contractors and self-employed persons to help me in my business, I am glad that protection has finally been provided to these workers," Mosley said. "They are critical to our rebound and recovery happening as quickly as possible, so keeping them protected economically through this crisis is morally right and financially smart as well."
State officials, already inundated with calls and inquiries on unemployment filings, are urging Arkansans to check the Workforce Services website for information and updates. Full details, including answers to frequently asked questions, are available at dws.arkansas.gov.
"DWS is reviewing the guidance and planning implementation procedures while continuing to serve the large number of claims being filed under Arkansas' regular unemployment program," said Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston. "More information on when and how to apply for these new programs will be released soon."