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Unemployment insurance is a shared federal-state responsibility that, in normal times, offers 26 weeks of benefits to laid-off workers pegged at roughly half the workers’ former salary. States also have a permanent extended benefits program, funded jointly with the federal government, that offers 13 to 20 additional weeks of benefits during economic slumps.

Just how many additional weeks beneficiaries receive depends on a formula that takes into account both a state’s unemployment rate and the increase in that state’s rate. That means that states that saw a rapid ramp-up in unemployment during the downturn could offer more help to workers.

During the most recent recession, Congress has enacted several other expansions to the program intended to keep people from sinking into poverty while they look for work.

First, in 2008, Congress enacted a law (PL 110-252) that created new tiers of Emergency Unemployment Compensation granting the long-term jobless more weeks of benefits. Under the EUC program, workers received 34 to 53 additional weeks of benefits.

In 2009, as part of the economic stimulus bill (PL 111-05), Congress took over full funding of the extended benefits program, allowing states to loosen eligibility rules and enroll more people.

As a result of these changes, long-term jobless workers in particularly hard-hit states could get up to 99 weeks, or almost two years, of unemployment benefits. But as the downturn has dragged on, unemployment rates in many states have remained high although those states have stopped seeing rapid increases in those rates. That means some workers are no longer eligible for the top tier of expanded benefits, even though the number of long-term unemployed workers remains at record levels.

When Congress last extended the EUC program in February, it reduced the maximum number of weeks of eligibility. Now, the longest laid-off workers can expect to receive benefits from any program in most of the hardest-hit states is 73 weeks, except in New York, where they can receive up to 83 weeks.

If Congress does not extend the program by the end of December, that time will drop down to 26 weeks in most states.

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