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How to Claim Unemployment Benefits: Compensation per State

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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:

  1. January – March
  2. April – June
  3. July – September
  4. 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 — 30Maine — 26 Texas — 26
Montana — 28Minnesota — 26 Utah — 26
Alaska — 26Mississippi — 26 Virginia — 26
Alabama — 26North Dakota — 26 Vermont — 26
Arizona — 26Nebraska — 26 Washington — 26
California — 26New Hampshire — 26 Wisconsin — 26
Colorado — 26New Jersey — 26West Virginia — 26
Connecticut — 26New Mexico — 26Wyoming — 26
District of Columbia — 26Nevada — 26Idaho — 21
Delaware — 26New York — 26Arkansas — 20
Hawaii — 26Ohio — 26Michigan — 20
Iowa — 26Oklahoma — 26South Carolina — 20
Illinois — 26Oregon — 26Kansas — 16
Indiana — 26Pennsylvania — 26Georgia — 14
Kentucky — 26Rhode Island — 26Missouri — 13
Louisiana — 26South Dakota — 26Florida — 12
Maryland — 26Tennessee — 26North 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 — 2.2Florida — 3.2Illinois — 3.9
North Dakota — 2.5Indiana — 3.2New York — 4
Utah — 2.5Minnesota — 3.2North Carolina — 4
Colorado — 2.6New Jersey — 3.2Michigan — 4.1
Iowa — 2.6Oklahoma — 3.3Nevada — 4.1
New Hampshire — 2.6Wisconsin — 3.3Oregon — 4.1
South Carolina — 2.6Georgia — 3.4Ohio — 4.2
Virginia — 2.6Montana — 3.4Pennsylvania — 4.2
Hawaii — 2.7Tennessee — 3.4Kentucky — 4.3
Alabama — 2.8Texas — 3.4Louisiana — 4.5
Maine — 2.8Arkansas — 3.5Washington — 4.5
Idaho — 2.9Connecticut — 3.6Arizona — 4.8
Massachusetts — 2.9Maryland — 3.6New Mexico — 4.8
South Dakota — 3Rhode Island — 3.6West Virginia — 4.8
Kansas — 3.1Delaware — 3.7District of Columbia — 5.4
Missouri — 3.1Wyoming — 3.8Mississippi — 5.5
Nebraska — 3.1California — 3.9Illinois — 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

AlabamaKentuckyNorth Dakota
ColoradoMichiganRhode Island
ConnecticutMinnesotaSouth Carolina
DelawareMississippiSouth Dakota
District of ColumbiaMissouriTennessee
IdahoNew HampshireVirginia
IllinoisNew JerseyWashington
IndianaNew MexicoWest Virginia
IowaNew YorkWisconsin
KansasNorth CarolinaWyoming

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. 

About Zety’s Editorial Process

This article has been reviewed by our editorial team to make sure it follows Zety's editorial guidelines. We’re committed to sharing our expertise and giving you trustworthy career advice tailored to your needs. High-quality content is what brings over 40 million readers to our site every year. But we don't stop there. Our team conducts original research to understand the job market better, and we pride ourselves on being quoted by top universities and prime media outlets from around the world.


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Danielle Kunkle
Danielle is a Medicare insurance expert and National Social Security Certificate Holder who writes about different healthcare issues. Linkedin Website

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