If you have recently lost your job, you are probably wondering whether you'll be eligible for unemployment benefits -- and if so, how much you'll receive and for how long. Unemployment benefits are provided through a joint federal-state program. Federal law sets the general rules, and state law fills in the details on who can receive benefits, minimum and maximum benefit amounts, duration of benefits, application procedures, and so on.
Eligibility for Benefits
Before you try to figure out how long your benefits will last, make sure you'll be eligible for benefits in the first place. Here are the general rules:
You must be out of work through no fault of your own. If you are laid off or lose your job for economic reasons, you will qualify. If you are fired for failing to meet expectations or subpar performance, you will likely also qualify. If you are fired for serious misconduct, however, you probably won't be eligible for benefits (at least for a while). And if you quit, you will be eligible for benefits only if you had good cause to leave your job. Each state defines eligibility differently: What constitutes "serious misconduct" or "good cause to quit" varies from state to state.
You must be able, available, and looking for work. You must be able to accept a job if you are offered one, and you must make an effort to find a new job. Again, states have different rules on what constitutes an adequate job search and what it means to be available to work (if you are temporarily disabled or need some time to find child care, for example). States also vary in how an applicant must verify that he or she really is looking for a job.
You must meet your state's compensation and tenure requirements. In most states, you will be eligible for benefits only if you earned at least a minimum amount during the "base period": the earliest four of the five complete calendar quarters immediately before you filed for unemployment. Some states also require that you have worked for at least a minimum amount of time during the base period.
For more on these rules, see "Who Is Eligible for Unemployment?" To find out more about your state's rules, go to the website of your state unemployment agency; for links to each state's agency, see State Unemployment Agencies.
Duration and Amount of Benefits
As mentioned above, each state sets its own benefit amounts and determines how long benefits will be paid. In every state, the amount you will receive is based on your prior earnings; how states actually do the math varies widely. States generally replace a percentage of your prior earnings; a state may use your prior annual earnings, your earnings in the highest paid quarter of the year, or some other measure as a baseline. Each state also has minimum and maximum benefit amounts; higher earning applicants can't be paid more than the maximum, no matter how much they used to make. And, some states provide an additional benefit to those with dependents. To learn more on how benefit amounts are determined, see How Much Will I Get? Calculating Unemployment Compensation.
Most states offer benefits for up to 26 weeks (a handful of states have recently adopted shorter maximum benefits periods, in response to state budget shortfalls). If you exhaust your state benefits and still haven't found a job, you may be eligible for extended benefits through the federal government. These benefits are offered through the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) Program and the Extended Benefits program. An employee whose state offers 26 weeks of benefits and who is eligible for all available federal extensions could get up to 99 weeks of benefits (this amount will decline in September 2012). These extended benefits are currently set to expire at the end of 2012 (Congress may extend this deadline; it has several times already). For more information, see How Long Do Unemployment Benefits Last?