The amount of benefits an individual can claim weekly in unemployment insurance (UI) depends on the state, federal district or U.S. territory in which they live. The range is from an amount as low as $5 per week in Hawaii to as high as $855 per week in Massachusetts. In most states, an individual can claim 26 weeks of benefits.
An claimant’s maximum weekly benefit amount (WBA) is set by the amount they earned in their base period. A base period is a designated 12-month term that a state labor department uses to determine if an individual earned enough to claim UI benefits. States have different formulas for determining WBA.
Understanding Determinations of WBA
Hawaii finds a WBA by dividing the wages in the highest quarter of a base period by 21. When an individual does not have sufficient wages in a base period to establish a claim, the state labor department will consider whether they have adequate wages to file an unemployment claim using an alternate base period. States define alternate base periods differently.
California defines a standard base period as the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters prior to the beginning date of the UI claim. A calendar quarter is three months out of the year, like January, February and March. California defines an alternate base period as the last four completed calendar quarters prior to the beginning date of the claim.
How Federal Law Changed WBA
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act changed how much money an individual claiming UI can receive in unemployment insurance benefits. The CARES Act and its extensions, first the Consolidated Appropriations Act and later the American Rescue Plan Act, provide $300 extra per week to every claimant. This $300 of aid is termed Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC).
The federal legislation provides $300 additional benefit payment to individuals who claim UI. It also provides this aid to individuals who claim Extended Benefits (EB), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).
EB is available to an individual who has exhausted their UI funds and lives in a state with a high unemployment rate that made Extended Benefits available. PEUC is available to an individual who has exhausted UI funds and EB. PUA is available to an individual who has exhausted UI, EB and PEUC funds. PUA is also available to an individual who cannot claim UI, EB or PEUC.
Benefits Extended to the Self-Employed
PEUC is available to an individual who has exhausted UI funds and EB. PUA is available to an individual who has exhausted UI, EB and PEUC funds. PUA is also available to an individual who cannot claim UI, EB or PEUC.
For example, self-employed people and independent contractors who cannot claim regular UI are eligible to claim PUA. Even when an individual might receive more through PUA than through UI, the individual cannot pick and choose which unemployment benefit to receive. They must file for, and receive, the benefit for which they are eligible upon the date of their initial claim.
PUA Weekly Payment Amounts
How much an individual can receive in PUA per week differs from their weekly benefit amount for UI. A claimant’s PUA weekly benefit amount depends on the amount of income they earned in the prior tax year. A claimant for PUA must provide proof of income to their state department of labor when they apply for benefits.
A state usually imposes a time limit on the number of days a claimant has to share proof. California requires a claimant to submit proof of income within 21 days of filing an initial claim. Acceptable documents include federal and state tax returns,W-2 forms, paycheck stubs, payroll history, bank receipts, business records, contracts and invoices, and related documents.
The minimum amount of PUA must be equal to one-half the average weekly benefit amount in the claimant’s state. For example, that amount is $167 in California. The maximum amount for PUA benefits is the same as the maximum amount of UI per week. In California, that is $450. Due to the public emergency caused by the coronavirus, the federal government will continue to add an extra $300 in FPUC to every claimant’s PUA amount.
Expiration of Coronavirus Benefits
All federal benefits related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including PEUC and PUA, are set to expire on September 4, 2021. As of mid-April 2021, an individual can claim 53 weeks of PEUC and 79 weeks of PUA.
Qualifying for MEUC
A claimant is eligible for a $100 additional weekly supplement on top of regular unemployment payments if they are a mixed earner. This is a person who received income from a W-2 and self-employment in the previous year. In order to qualify for Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), the claimant must have had annual self-employment income of at least $5,000 in the most recent tax year before they applied for regular UI.
A person must be receiving UI, EB or PEUC to claim MEUC. A claimant who is receiving PUA cannot also receive MEUC.
UI Payments Increased in 2021
State unemployment insurance benefits increased slightly in 2021. This is because each state makes adjustments every year to its WBA range. States differ as to how much they raise UI amounts. In Oregon, the weekly benefit amount for claims filed before June 28, 2020 is $151, while the maximum is $648. Oregon’s WBA for new initial claims filed after June 28, 2020 is $157 minimum and $673 maximum.
How Weekly Wage Affects Benefits
When an individual works part time while receiving unemployment benefits, they can expect the state to reduce their unemployment compensation. This is true whether they are receiving UI, EB, PEUC or PUA. States have different formulas for reducing unemployment benefits. One of the most common approaches is to reduce a claimant’s benefits on a dollar-for-dollar amount in relation to their weekly wage.
Eligibility Requirements for Benefits
To qualify for any type of unemployment benefit, an individual must be able and available to work. Undocumented immigrants are not able to work under this definition because they do not have documentation that allows them to work legally. There are unique exemptions to the able requirement for PUA.
For example, a person who contracts the coronavirus and is recovering from it or who is caring for a household member with COVID-19 is exempt from the able-to-work requirement. They can claim PUA rather than return to work.
Additional eligibility requirements include the individual having earned enough wages in the base period to establish a claim if they are filing for UI. If the claimant is filing for PUA, they must provide proof of income. A claimant cannot have been terminated for fault and they must be ready and willing to accept work immediately.
Job Search Requirements
Many states have reinstated the work search requirement. This means that in order to qualify for any type of unemployment benefits, from UI to PUA, the claimant must actively look for work and apply for work. State work search requirements differ, and they have also been modified because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A claimant should review their state department of labor’s new work search requirements established in 2020 or 2021.
- Oregon Employment Department: Frequently Asked Questions
- District of Columbia: Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC)
- Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Policy Basics, Unemployment Insurance
- State of Hawaii, Unemployment Insurance: How Much Do I Qualify for and How Long Can I Collect?
- Mass.gov: How Your Unemployment Benefits Are Determined
- California Employment Development Department: Eligibility Requirements
- California Employment Development Department: Fact Sheet, How Unemployment Insurance Benefits Are Computed
- California Employment Development Department: Income Documentation: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.