How Do State Unemployment Benefits Work?

Explore how unemployment insurance benefits work, who qualifies and how to apply in your state


COVID-19 has affected everyone in one way or another. If you lost your job or lost income because of it, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and other recent legislation might be able to help provide support.

Here are some things to keep in mind about unemployment insurance—and how you may be able to access government relief programs.

Unemployment Insurance Basics

Unemployment insurance is a program administered jointly by the Department of Labor and the states. The program gives cash benefits, usually in the form of weekly payments, to eligible workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own. All states must follow the same federal guidelines—but each state administers a separate unemployment insurance program. That means benefits can vary by state.

Unemployment Insurance and Coronavirus

Who’s Eligible? 

The CARES Act permits states to expand unemployment insurance so more people qualify for benefits. Relief may be available to individuals who aren't eligible for state or federal unemployment, including self-employed workers, independent contractors and people who have exhausted all rights to state benefits. 

To be eligible, you must prove you’re otherwise able and available to work, except for the fact that you were affected by a COVID-19-related circumstance, including:

  • You were laid off or had your hours reduced.
  • You’re self-employed and have lost income.
  • You’re quarantined or can’t work due to risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
  • You can’t work because you’re caring for a family member.

Some states may have a requirement that you actively search for work in order to receive unemployment benefits. But the CARES Act allows states to relax or waive those requirements. 

Contact your state’s unemployment insurance program—linked below—to find out whether you qualify for benefits.

How Much Money Will I Receive? 

Each state manages its own unemployment insurance program. The amount of money you receive may vary, but it’s generally based on your prior earnings. The CARES Act allows states to offer an additional $600 per week on top of existing state benefits, until July 31, 2020. 

Keep in mind, unemployment benefits are taxable—unlike economic impact payments you may have received.

When Can I Start Receiving Benefits?

As COVID-19 has spread, unemployment has surged, and some state unemployment offices are overwhelmed with claims. 

The Department of Labor says it generally can take two to three weeks after a claim is filed to receive a benefit check. The agency recommends contacting your state’s program as soon as possible after you become unemployed. 

Some states have one-week waiting periods before they begin paying unemployment benefits. But the CARES Act includes incentives for states to waive these waiting periods.

How Long Can I Receive Benefits? 

States determine how long to provide unemployment benefits—and most provide relief for around 26 weeks. The CARES Act allows states to extend unemployment benefits by up to 13 weeks—sometimes more—for people who have exhausted their state’s regular benefits. 

These extended benefits are available for periods of employment that began on or after January 27, 2020. And they’re set to expire on December 31, 2020.

How Do I Apply for Unemployment Insurance Benefits?

The Department of Labor says to apply for unemployment benefits in the state where you worked. If you live and work in different states, or if you worked in multiple states, the Department of Labor suggests contacting the unemployment insurance program of the state where you live for guidance.

When you apply for benefits, you will need to provide information like the addresses and dates of your former employment. So, it’s a good idea to have as much information as possible when you apply. And if your application is approved, you may have to recertify your benefits online or by phone every week.

Watch Out for Scams

The Department of Labor also warns applicants to beware of scams. It says unemployment insurance programs will never charge a fee to provide you with information or to allow you to apply for benefits. Learn more about phishing and how to avoid scammers who are taking advantage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Find Your State’s Unemployment Insurance Program

Here’s a list of links to each state’s unemployment insurance website—Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are included, too—so you can learn more about how your program works and how to apply. 

Alaska
Alabama 
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Guam
Hawaii
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Kansas
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Puerto Rico
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
U.S. Virgin Islands
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
Washington, D.C.
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming

Still have questions? The Department of Labor’s COVID-19 unemployment insurance relief page has more details about the CARES Act, state-level information and answers to frequently asked questions.


Learn more about Capital One’s response to COVID-19 and resources available to customers. For information about COVID-19, head over to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

We hope you found this helpful. Our content is not intended to provide legal, investment or financial advice or to indicate that a particular Capital One product or service is available or right for you. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, consider talking with a qualified professional.

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