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Losing your job is always a fear. Although the unemployment rate (3.6%) is at an all-time low since 1969, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s not a guarantee your job is safe.
The number of unemployed people is down 38% since the last U.S. recession ended in 2009. In October 2019, there were nearly 6 million unemployed people in the United States. These people look to unemployment insurance to cover them until they can find work. While unemployment insurance isn’t a permanent fix, it can help tide you over until you get another job.
What Is Unemployment Insurance?
Unemployment insurance is a federal-state program that credits its eligible members with part of their previous income. The program was established in 1935 by the Social Security Act, while Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office. Each states’ government operates its unemployment insurance program. However, the U.S. Department of Labor regulates the system.
Since each state government is allowed to customize the program, things such as eligibility rules, how benefits are calculated, and the length of the benefit period vary by state. Before an unemployed person applies for unemployment benefits, they should find out if they qualify for their state’s program.
Who Is Eligible for Unemployment Insurance?
Although eligibility requirements can vary from state to state, generally, to be eligible for unemployment insurance, the individual must be unemployed at no fault of their own, able to work, and must have earned above a certain income level during a specific period before becoming unemployed.
To lose a job at no fault of their own, the individual must have been laid-off or fired unfairly. If the individual quits or is fired for reasonable reasons, they will not be eligible for unemployment benefits in any state.
What Is the Base Period and How Is It Figured?
The specific period each state reviews for unemployment eligibility is known as the base period. The base period is calculated the same way in most states. The base period consists of the four earliest calendar quarters out of the last five full calendar quarters the person worked before applying for unemployment.
Calendar quarters are as follows:
- January – March
- April – June
- July – September
- October – December
For example, if someone applies for unemployment during the first quarter (January – March), their base period will be from October two years prior until September of the year directly before the year he applied. When someone applies for unemployment during the second quarter (April – June), their base period will be from January until December of the year before he applied.
If someone applies for unemployment during the third quarter (July – September), their base period will be from April of the year before he applied until March of the year in which he applied. If someone applies for unemployment during the fourth quarter (October – December), their base period will be from July of the previous year until June of the year in which he applied.
For a quick reference to figure out a specific base period in 2020, check below.
Base Periods-Unemployment Eligibility
- Applied during the first quarter in 2020 — base period is October 2018 – September 2019
- Applied during the second quarter in 2020 — base period is January 2019 – December 2019
- Applied during the third quarter in 2020 — base period is April 2019 – March 2020
- Applied during the fourth quarter in 2020 — base period is July 2019 – June 2020
How Are Benefits Calculated?
States calculate benefits differently. Depending on the state, benefits will be calculated by using the individual’s quarter with the highest-earning or adding up the total earned during the base period. The result can help the state figure out eligibility, the payment amount, and how long the applicant is eligible for benefits. Also, some states take the number of dependents into account when calculating benefits.
If the state uses the highest-earning quarter to calculate benefits, the total income will be divided by 25 to determine the weekly benefit amount. However, states can set a maximum weekly benefit level, and if the result is higher than that, the individual receives the maximum limit instead.
For example, in Texas, if during the highest-earning quarter, the applicant earned $10,000, their weekly benefit payment would be $400 ($10,000/25). In 2019, Texas had a maximum weekly benefit of $507. Therefore, if the applicant earned $12,675 or more in their highest-earning quarter, he would receive the maximum weekly benefit.
People who receive unemployment benefits should keep in mind that they have to report any and all unemployment benefits as income when they file taxes.
Maximum Benefits per State
States are able to set the maximum benefit an eligible worker can receive. The maximum will vary based on each state’s cost of living and other factors. Some states have a maximum benefit amount of nearly $800, while most have maximum benefits of around $400.
The following represents the maximum benefit levels of each state (in order from largest to smallest benefit, figures from 2019):
|Massachusetts — $795||Texas — $507||Idaho — $405|
|Washington — $749||Kentucky — $502||Indiana — $390|
|Minnesota — $717||Wyoming — $489||Virginia — $387|
|New Jersey — $696||Montana — $487||Alaska — $370|
|Illinois — $648||Kansas — $474||Wisconsin — $363|
|Maine — $646||Vermont — $466||Michigan — $362|
|Connecticut — $631||Arkansas — $451||South Dakota — $352|
|Hawaii — $630||California — $450||North Carolina — $350|
|Ohio — $598||New Mexico — $442||Delaware — $330|
|Colorado — $597||New York — $435||Georgia — $330|
|North Dakota — $595||Maryland — $430||South Carolina — $326|
|Iowa — $573||Mississippi — $235||Missouri — $320|
|Rhode Island — $566||New Hampshire — $427||Florida — $275|
|Pennsylvania — $561||Nebraska — $426||Tennessee — $275|
|Utah — $543||District of Columbia — $425||Alabama — $265|
|Oregon — $538||West Virginia — $424||Louisiana — $247|
|Oklahoma — $520||Nevada — $407||Arizona — $240|
Maximum Length of Benefits
In addition to choosing the maximum weekly benefits, states also choose how long eligible members get to receive benefits.
In most states, the maximum length of benefits is 26 weeks. However, it can range from 12 to 30 weeks. Eligibility will determine how long each person receives benefits.
The maximum length of benefits for each state in 2019 was as follows (in order from longest to shortest):
|Massachusetts — 30||Maine — 26||Texas — 26|
|Montana — 28||Minnesota — 26||Utah — 26|
|Alaska — 26||Mississippi — 26||Virginia — 26|
|Alabama — 26||North Dakota — 26||Vermont — 26|
|Arizona — 26||Nebraska — 26||Washington — 26|
|California — 26||New Hampshire — 26||Wisconsin — 26|
|Colorado — 26||New Jersey — 26||West Virginia — 26|
|Connecticut — 26||New Mexico — 26||Wyoming — 26|
|District of Columbia — 26||Nevada — 26||Idaho — 21|
|Delaware — 26||New York — 26||Arkansas — 20|
|Hawaii — 26||Ohio — 26||Michigan — 20|
|Iowa — 26||Oklahoma — 26||South Carolina — 20|
|Illinois — 26||Oregon — 26||Kansas — 16|
|Indiana — 26||Pennsylvania — 26||Georgia — 14|
|Kentucky — 26||Rhode Island — 26||Missouri — 13|
|Louisiana — 26||South Dakota — 26||Florida — 12|
|Maryland — 26||Tennessee — 26||North Carolina — 12|
Extended Unemployment Benefits
The program known as Extended Benefits allows certain people about 13 to 20 weeks of unemployment benefits in addition to the state’s maximum. However, this program is only available at times when the state’s unemployment has increased dramatically. In 2019, there were no states offering the Extended Benefits program.
Unemployment Rates by State
As mentioned earlier, the national unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since 1969. In 1969, the national unemployment rate was 3.5%. Before 1969, there were only three years (1951-1953) that showed a lower unemployment rate than 2019.
Although the national unemployment rate is currently 3.6%, each state has an unemployment rate specific to it. The current unemployment rates for each state are as follows (from lowest to highest):
|Vermont — 2.2||Florida — 3.2||Illinois — 3.9|
|North Dakota — 2.5||Indiana — 3.2||New York — 4|
|Utah — 2.5||Minnesota — 3.2||North Carolina — 4|
|Colorado — 2.6||New Jersey — 3.2||Michigan — 4.1|
|Iowa — 2.6||Oklahoma — 3.3||Nevada — 4.1|
|New Hampshire — 2.6||Wisconsin — 3.3||Oregon — 4.1|
|South Carolina — 2.6||Georgia — 3.4||Ohio — 4.2|
|Virginia — 2.6||Montana — 3.4||Pennsylvania — 4.2|
|Hawaii — 2.7||Tennessee — 3.4||Kentucky — 4.3|
|Alabama — 2.8||Texas — 3.4||Louisiana — 4.5|
|Maine — 2.8||Arkansas — 3.5||Washington — 4.5|
|Idaho — 2.9||Connecticut — 3.6||Arizona — 4.8|
|Massachusetts — 2.9||Maryland — 3.6||New Mexico — 4.8|
|South Dakota — 3||Rhode Island — 3.6||West Virginia — 4.8|
|Kansas — 3.1||Delaware — 3.7||District of Columbia — 5.4|
|Missouri — 3.1||Wyoming — 3.8||Mississippi — 5.5|
|Nebraska — 3.1||California — 3.9||Illinois — 3.9|
Educational and Training Programs for the Unemployed
One requirement to qualify for unemployment benefits is that the person must be looking for work. States offer educational and training programs to the unemployed to increase their chances of getting hired. These programs vary from state to state and are usually low in cost or free.
Some states, such as Delaware, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, and Oregon, offer a self-employment assistance program that helps the unemployed return to work by starting their own business.
Health Insurance While Unemployed
The decreased income isn’t the only thing unemployed people have to worry about. They may also have to find new health insurance. People who received their health insurance through their previous employer have a few options in deciding how to get health insurance.
COBRA is a program that allows employer health coverage to continue after the employee loses their job. COBRA is a short-term solution, as people can only have it for up to 36 months. This program is also usually expensive, so people should research other ways to get health coverage as well.
Generally, to qualify, the employer's health plan must be covered by COBRA, the loss of employment can’t be caused by misconduct and several other factors that are dependent upon the employer and employee specifically. Ex-employees will need to talk with their previous employer’s Human Resources department to figure out if they qualify.
How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits
Anyone can apply for unemployment benefits. Whether they get approved or not will depend on the state’s requirements. Each state’s application process for unemployment benefits can vary. However, this is generally how it works:
- To start the unemployment benefits application process, people should contact their state’s unemployment office. It’s more efficient if people can determine their likelihood of approval before applying. By doing this, they can save time by not going through the application process if they figure out that they don’t meet the base requirements.
- The next step will be to submit a claim. Most initial claims will require basic personal information as well as employment history. After the claim is submitted, applicants usually hear a decision within ten business days.
- Applicants who are approved for their state’s unemployment program will have to attend a meeting at the state’s America’s Job Center. At this meeting, a representative will help the applicant get set up with workshops, job search, and other services that will assist the applicant in finding a job.
- The final step will be for the applicant to start looking for a job. Unemployment programs monitor how often their members search for jobs and the jobs they are offered. To maintain eligibility, workers have to include this information on their weekly unemployment benefits claim. Failure to submit weekly claims can result in benefits being suspended.
People who are looking to learn their state’s unemployment benefits qualifications or to apply for benefits can find their state’s unemployment site linked below.
Unemployment Sites by State
Danielle K. Roberts is a Medicare insurance expert and co-founder at Boomer Benefits, where her team of experts help baby boomers with their Medicare decisions nationwide.