Doing the Math on Unemployment Benefits

With nearly 10 million people registering for unemployment in a two-week period, we decided to look at unemployment benefits and how much they’ll cover in the upcoming weeks.

Unemployment benefits vary by state. Generally, they are a percentage of a person’s wages and limited to a certain number of weeks – usually 26 – and do not start until seven days after a person files for benefits. Once a recipient’s allotted benefits run out (i.e. are paid out over the maximum number of weeks), they might not be eligible to receive unemployment benefits for a while.

Excluding expanded benefits under the stimulus package, Massachusetts offers the highest weekly unemployment benefits at $823 for up to 30 weeks; Mississippi offers the lowest weekly benefits at $235 for up to 26 weeks – not enough to keep a single adult over the U.S. poverty guideline of $12,490 ($25,750 for a family of four according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services). Georgia offers the shortest benefit period at 20 weeks.

Using, as an example, Colorado, whose weekly maximum unemployment benefit of $561 exceeds even California’s weekly maximum, unemployment pays no more than 60% of a recipient’s earnings. A person must earn $4,000 monthly, or $48,000 annually, to receive an average monthly benefit of $2,431 – the maximum benefit in Colorado – a $1,569 hole. (We’re comparing gross numbers because both amounts are subject to income tax.) Add on the monthly cost of COBRA – which averaged $610 per month for individual plans in 2019 according to the Kaiser Family Foundation ($1,749 for families, both figures include 2% administrative fees) – and, in a state where half the population earned more than $68,811 in 2018, $5,734 monthly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an additional $1,200 might not be sufficient to keep the unemployed in their homes if this continues over a protracted period.

Increasing weekly unemployment benefits by $600 will raise the maximum monthly benefit to $5,031. Anyone earning less than $60,000 annually – less than half Colorado’s working population in 2018 – will receive more in benefits through July 31, 2020, than they had been earning monthly. All others will receive less than they earned.


Ashby Walters is Executive Director and cofounder of TaxForward and Future Tax Leaders. She has served as head of or leader in tax for Peet’s Coffee, Inc., Quizno’s, Staples, Dish Network, and other companies. Over her 20-plus year career, Ashby has helped organizations from Fortune 200 companies to start-ups, save more than $200 million in cash taxes, millions in G&A, and thousands of production hours collectively.