Checking On Unemployment Benefits And Eligibility When unemployment reached a 16-year high in December, it left millions of people scrambling to make ends meet. For laid-off workers, the average weekly unemployment check is $296 — but first you must qualify.
NPR logo Checking On Unemployment Benefits And Eligibility

Checking On Unemployment Benefits And Eligibility

When unemployment reached a 16-year high in December, it left millions of people scrambling to make ends meet. So what can you expect from the government if you're laid off? Here are some things to consider:

How many unemployed workers are there?

About 10 million, and half of them are in eight states including California, Florida, Michigan and New York. Of the 10 million, only about 4 million are getting unemployment benefits. And 1.5 million of those recipients exhaust the money before they get another job, according to Howard Rosen, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.

How much can you expect to get in unemployment?

The average national weekly amount is $296.17, Rosen says. Rates vary by state: Some pay a standard across-the-board rate, while others prorate payment depending on income. For example, Illinois' jobless benefits range from $51 a week for individuals to $511 for workers with dependent children.

But first you have to qualify.

What does it take to qualify?

There are four criteria, and many people who have been laid off don't meet all of them. First, your employer must have paid into the unemployment fund on your behalf (99 percent of employers do); this doesn't usually cover temporary or part-time employees. You had to have worked for your employer for a substantial period, usually at least one or two years, depending on the state. You cannot have been let go for cause or, with some exceptions, have left voluntarily. And you had to have worked each week for at least 35 hours and $35, according to the antiquated law written in 1935.

How long do benefits last?

The standard length is 26 weeks, or about six months. Last June, Congress extended benefits for an additional 13 weeks, and in November it gave seven more weeks of support to workers who had gotten the 13-week extension. The November legislation also allows up to 26 extra weeks of unemployment benefits — for a total of 52 weeks — for workers in states with a jobless rate higher than 6 percent. These extensions are not permanent.

What could keep you from getting the money?

If you have any other kind of weekly income — including severance pay — it is subtracted from your unemployment check. If an employer offers severance pay, it may be more beneficial to take it in a lump sum rather than in installments, so you can get unemployment benefits. Also, if you own a home and rent it out, that rental income would be taken into consideration when calculating your unemployment benefit. Alimony is exempted.

Are states running out of unemployment money — and if so, does that mean there won't be money for me?

Thirty states face serious issues as their unemployment trust funds dry up, though they can borrow from the federal government to ensure benefits for the average worker.

If you don't qualify for unemployment, what other resources are available?

There are other programs designed to help low-income people. Programs such as food stamps can help if your income is low enough. For example, an individual's net monthly income has to be $867 or less. But for a household of five, the threshold is $2,067. Workers with dependent children may qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Also, some states may have other types of low-income assistance.