Fanatic Studio/Getty Images
Fanatic Studio/Getty Images
The federal government is throwing $2 trillion at the coronavirus problem. Banks and other lenders are doing things to assist people on top of that. Here's your survival kit for how to get the help that's available and be in the best financial shape possible as you weather this storm.
Who Can Qualify For Unemployment Benefits
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The good news here is almost everyone qualifies who has lost their income because of the virus outbreak. The Labor Department says, "unemployment insurance programs provide unemployment benefits to eligible workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own."
And the rescue package dramatically expands who is "eligible."
Gig workers like Uber drivers, self-employed people, freelancers and contract workers should all be eligible for benefits if they are unable to work because of COVID-19.
You apply for benefits through your state's website. State-specific details will be available there, too. There's been so much demand that sites have been crashing, and phone lines have had long wait times. But hang in there and keep trying. Nearly 3.3 million people were able to file in a single week, and states say they are staffing up to help more people. We have more advice on how to file for unemployment benefits here.
How To Skip Payments On Your Mortgage, Auto Loan And Credit Cards
The federal government is ordering mortgage companies to allow people who have lost their job or income to make reduced payments or to skip payments. To qualify, you need to have suffered a financial hardship related to the coronavirus outbreak that makes you unable to meet basic living expenses. (This includes lost work because of all the business shutdowns. You don't need to have fallen ill or be caring for a sick family member.)
This order covers the vast majority of existing mortgages. On top of that, many lenders say they are offering similar assistance for many other types of loans.
"We have assistance that includes refunds on fees, deferred payments, and at the same time, no negative credit bureau reporting," says Holly O'Neill, chief client care executive at Bank of America. "And this is across our products, deposit accounts, credit cards, mortgages, auto loans and small business loans."
But you can't just stop paying your bills!
You need to call your lender. If you're a homeowner, for example, you call the company that you normally send your mortgage check to every month. You tell them you are having a financial hardship because of the coronavirus and you need to make reduced payments or skip payments and be put into what's called a forbearance plan. Some lenders will let you do this online because call wait times can be long.
But be sure to ask what the options are for you when this forbearance period ends. You will need to make those missed payments. So the best option for most people will probably be to just extend the term of the loan by the number of months that you skipped payments while in forbearance.
For example, if you skipped three mortgage payments, your loan term would just extend three months longer and you'd make those payments many years down the road if you have, say, a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. If your mortgage company wants to raise your payment as part of a repayment plan, push back and ask if extending the term of the loan a few months is an option to keep your payment the same as it was. Get it in writing.
For half the loans in the country, those backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, lenders are required to give you an option that does not raise your monthly payment.
Likewise with auto loans, credit cards, etc., make sure you understand the terms that you are agreeing to. In most cases you should not be paying any extra interest or fees since the goal is to help people financially during a time of national crisis.
Trim Spending All You Can
You want get to the other side of this widespread business shutdown as financially intact as possible. And even with the biggest rescue package in history enacted by Congress, if you've lost your job, you still won't have as much money coming in the door as usual. Plus, it can take two to three weeks after you file to receive your first unemployment check, even in normal times.
"I kind of just went through everything that normally gets charged on my card and canceled it," says 25-year-old Angelica Rico in Southern California. She lost her job as a digital marketing specialist. "Spotify, you know, canceling Amazon orders, deferring my student loan."
And she says, for food, "basically a lot of pasta, a lot of rice and beans. I have an Instant Pot, so I can live on rice and beans for a while."
What Can Renters Do?
One good thing to do if you've lost your job and you're a renter is to talk to your landlord. Mortgage companies are being told to offer flexibility to landlords, too, if their tenants can't pay rent as a result of the outbreak. If you have a mom-and-pop landlord with just a few rental units, they may not even realize this. They could call their lender and see if there's a way for them to let you skip some payments if the landlord could do the same.
Not that you'd want it to come to this, but in many areas evictions have been suspended because the government doesn't want people being put out of their homes when we are all supposed to be social distancing to stem the spread of the virus.
What If I Lose My Health Insurance?
One major goal of the rescue package from Washington is that by making furloughed workers eligible for unemployment benefits, employers will be willing to keep workers technically employed and getting health benefits, even if the business can't afford to keep paying workers.
This way workers can have an income from unemployment benefits and keep their employer-sponsored health plan. But, if you do lose your health insurance, there is the normal myriad of options. One is to pay out of pocket to keep your old benefits through what's knows as COBRA, but that can be expensive.
You can look into whether you qualify for Medicaid. And also, losing your job is considered a life event that enables you to enroll in your state-level health care exchange system set up under the Affordable Care Act.
Are you asking for a break on mortgage, rent or other bills? NPR wants to hear from you.
The audio portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.