Here's what you need to know about the government's response to the outbreak.

It's hard to imagine what it would mean to be caught in a global pandemic — but that's exactly what's happened. Now, as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads through the world, the United States has topped the list of confirmed cases by country. The viral infection has brought all aspects of American life to a standstill, with hospitals overwhelmed and the economy tumbling.

The government has been forced to react with emergency measures. The response was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economy Security (CARES) Act — a $2 trillion financial assistance bill that is, by more than double, the largest in the country's history. The CARES Act is designed to distribute funds quickly and broadly, allocating money for individuals, businesses, federal agencies, and state and local governments.

With the workforce in turmoil, the coronavirus outbreak is drastically changing the work and financial situations of millions of Americans, and the CARES Act addresses those changes. Here is an overview of some of its highlights as they pertain to your career.

Do you have to go to work?

As social distancing has become essential in the effort to flatten the curve, many states throughout the country have mandated the closure of all non-essential businesses. Therefore, if you are in one of these states and do not work in an “essential” business (e.g. health care, infrastructure, grocery stores), you do not have to come in to work. In fact, you're not allowed to. In this situation, you should start getting used to working from home.

Even if you are not in one of those states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has encouraged all employers to allow and enable their employees to work from home or, at least, implement flexible work hours to stagger shift times. Hopefully, your boss is listening to those recommendations.

If you are still required to come in to work and feel uncomfortable, you are well within your right to voice those concerns and request to work from home. However, your employer has no obligation to grant it. In that case, you may want to consider using your vacation or sick days to stay home.

Can your employer lay you off because of COVID-19?

Unfortunately, yes. All kinds of businesses are taking a hit because of the economic impact of the outbreak. One of the results is the need to lay off workers who they can no longer afford to pay.

This is an issue that an aspect of the CARES Act works to prevent. Its Paycheck Protection Program sets aside $350 billion in government-backed loans for businesses. When businesses use these loans to maintain payroll — that is, continue to pay employees — those loans can be forgiven. It is the largest section of the Act, created with the goal of incentivizing businesses to keep workers employed when they may not be able to pay them on their own.

What if you become unemployed?

If you are laid off despite the Paycheck Protection Program, a massive boost to unemployment benefits can help you.

Some background: Unemployment benefits are handled at the state level, and the size of those benefits varies by state. This is because the process for determining one's weekly benefits is different everywhere, though it typically uses some calculation around your previous earnings over a period of time.

The CARES Act gets the federal government involved. It provides $600 per week for unemployed workers to add to the state benefits they already receive. This will last for four months.

Additionally, state unemployment benefits have been expanded by 13 weeks; prior to this, benefit checks were provided for between 12 and 28 weeks, depending on the state. In other words, take however long your state's unemployment benefits usually last and add another 13 weeks — that's the new total.

If you are one of the over 40.7 million Americans who have lost their jobs due to the epidemic, you can learn how to file for unemployment here.

Are you eligible for unemployment benefits?

Eligibility for unemployment benefits has also been expanded. Thanks to the CARES Act — specifically its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program — state unemployment benefits are now available for part-time and self-employed workers such as freelancers and independent contractors. These workers will also receive the $600 federal check.

Eligibility is also extended to those who have to leave their jobs to care for a child or household member, whose employer closes down, and who are recommended to self-quarantine by a health care provider. Read here for a comprehensive list of circumstances that make someone eligible for benefits under the PUA program.

What if you or someone you know gets sick?

If you contract COVID-19 or begin to show symptoms, the most important thing is that you stay home. Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) to expand provided paid sick leave and paid expanded family and medical leave. It applies to certain public employers and private employers with 500 employees or less, though there are exceptions.

Specifically, the Act says that an employer must provide employees with two weeks of paid sick leave at the employee's regular rate if “the employee is unable to work because the employee is quarantined … and/or experiencing COVID19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Additionally, an employer must provide two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds the employee's regular rate of pay if the employee must care for a quarantined individual or child whose care provider has closed due to the outbreak.

If you can no longer work and must leave your job for reasons related to COVID-19, you become eligible for the unemployment benefits outlined above.

Staying informed

The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted millions of workers across the country. These are truly unprecedented times, and the government has responded with historic action. It's likely that there will even be further legislation to come.

Meanwhile, it's important to realize what may have changed for you — most importantly, what is and is not available to you. As the situation is rapidly evolving, do your best to keep up with government announcements. And of course, follow all recommendations by the CDC and World Health Organization.

TopResume is here to support you too. If the COVID-19 outbreak pushes you toward a new job search, get a free resume critique for expert feedback on your resume.

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