Unemployment Benefits: How Much Will You Get?

Learn how much you can expect in unemployment benefits, and for how long.

Unemployment insurance is a joint federal-state program that provides temporary benefit payments to employees who are out of work through no fault of their own. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, finding another job is no small feat. In recognition of these tough economic times, the federal government has passed a law that temporarily increases unemployment benefits and extends them for up to 13 additional weeks.

Coronavirus and Unemployment: The CARES Act

After a week that saw a record 3.3 million people file for unemployment benefits, Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package on March 27, 2020. The law, known as The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, provides for direct cash transfers to each adult and expanded unemployment benefits.

The highlights of the new law include:
  • cash payments of up to $1,200 (plus $500 for each child age 16 or under) for each qualifying adult
  • an additional $600 per week on top of any state-provided unemployment benefits through July 31
  • up to 13 weeks of unemployment benefits in addition to what your state provides, up to 39 weeks; and
  • unemployment benefits for self-employed and gig workers.

If you've been laid off or seen your hours reduced due to COVID-19, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. In addition, you may qualify if you can't work because you've been told to quarantine or self-isolate, you're caring for a family member with COVID-19, or you're looking after a child whose school has closed.

Read more about the new law.

Unemployment Benefit Amounts

Unemployment benefits are intended to partially replace lost wages, so the precise amount you receive will depend on what you used to earn. States use different formulas to calculate benefit payments, but all states take prior earnings into account in some way. Some states consider the employee's prior annual earnings; others look at the employee's earnings during the highest paid quarter or two quarters of the base period.

All states also set an upper limit on the total weekly benefit amount. A common formula is to pay half of what the employee used to earn, up to a cap that's tied to the average earnings in that state. This means that employees with higher wages may receive a larger overall benefits check, but a smaller percentage of what they used to earn. The maximum amount an employee can receive each week varies widely from state to state.

Some states provide an additional benefit amount to employees with dependents. These amounts tend to be small; most states that provide this benefit offer $25 or less per dependent per week in additional benefits.

Unemployment benefits are taxable. You may elect to have up to 10% of your benefit amount withheld to pay federal income taxes.

If you earn other income while receiving unemployment, that may reduce the amount of benefits available to you. Of course, if you find a new job, you will no longer be eligible for unemployment. But if, for example, you pick up temporary work for a day or two while you are otherwise unemployed, you must report your earnings to the state unemployment agency, which will determine whether your unemployment benefits should be reduced to reflect those earnings.

If you are found eligible for unemployment benefits, the notice you receive from the state unemployment insurance department may indicate how much you can expect to receive per week.

To learn more about your state's benefit amounts, contact your state's unemployment department. You can find links and contact information for every state at www.servicelocator.org/OWSLinks.asp, the Career One Stop site sponsored by the federal Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration.

Duration of Benefits

In a normal economic climate, most states offer unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks, or half a year, although a handful of states now offer benefits for fewer weeks. In these anything-but-normal times, however, the total period for which a former employee can receive benefits has been extended by an additional 13 weeks, up to a total of 39 weeks.

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