How Much Money Can You Get From Unemployment Benefits During the Coronavirus Recession?

A record number of Americans are filing unemployment insurance claims amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 280,000 Americans filed for their first week of benefits last week—a 33 percent spike from the week before—as nonessential businesses have shuttered around the country. The next jobs report, to be released Thursday, is expected to show a tenfold spike in jobless claims.

That means millions of workers could be relying on unemployment checks to pay their bills. However, the amount may come as a surprise. Unemployment insurance does not cover a full paycheck—typically, it covers about 45 percent of an individual's income. The national average weekly benefit is between $300 to $400 each week.

"It depends very much on the person's level of earnings," said Wayne Vroman, a labor economist at the Urban Institute. "Your income over the past year is the basis of the size of the payment."

A state unemployment office analyzes an applicant's work history and assigns a percentage of that income up to a maximum benefit. In most cases, the maximum is around $500 or $600 per week, according to Vroman. But in some states, like Massachusetts, it can be as high as $1,000.

Unemployment benefits usually last up to 26 weeks, although in some states it's less. Missouri and South Carolina pay benefits for 20 weeks, Arkansas pays for 16 weeks and Alabama for 14 weeks. Four states—Florida, Georgia, Idaho and North Carolina—have a sliding scale for the length of benefits that depends on unemployment levels.

However, the new stimulus package Congress is set to approve Thursday will increase those benefits for those who have been hit hard by job losses during the pandemic. The bill is the biggest fiscal stimulus package in modern history.

The new deal is expected to expand the number of people who qualify for unemployment, permitting gig workers and independent contractors, who usually don't qualify for benefits, to collect unemployment during the pandemic. It also extends benefits by 13 weeks and offers a four-month enhancement of them, the New York Times reported.

"The system is going to be under a lot of strain because there are a lot of layoffs taking place. The agencies have to make decisions about how much money a person is going to receive, so they have to do a lot of short-term work on a massive number of people," Vroman said. "The number of claimants will undoubtedly increase a great deal as employers continue to layoff workers."

If you haven't lost your job completely but your hours have been reduced or you work part-time, you may be eligible for unemployment insurance but you won't receive the maximum amount. If you're not sure you qualify for benefits, experts encourage you to check in with your state's agency every so often as both federal and state governments amend their unemployment laws because of the coronavirus outbreak.

nyse coronavirus causes stocks fall
A woman walks past the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on March 19, 2020, at Wall Street in New York City. Wall Street stocks fell again as central banks unveiled new stimulus measures and US jobless claims showed an initial hit from the slowdown generated by the coronavirus outbreak. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

The Department of Labor also issued new guidance last week expanding unemployment benefits. The changes allow states to provide benefits if an employer temporarily closes or ceases operations because of the coronavirus; if a worker leaves a job over the risk of exposure or to care for a sick family member; or if an individual is quarantined with the expectation of coming back to work once the quarantine period is over.

The pandemic has caused hundreds of thousands of layoffs as many state officials have ordered all nonessential businesses to cease operations. California, Illinois and New York, which combined account for more than a quarter of all economic output in the country, have asked all their residents to stay home. It's possible as many as 3 million jobs could be gone by summer, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that he wanted the country to be reopened by the Easter holiday, which falls on April 12. He said that the United States wasn't designed to be shut down and that normal operations should be resumed as soon as possible, despite warnings from other top officials against reopening businesses during the global health crisis.

"Our country is not built to shut down, our people are full of vim and vigor and energy, they don't want to be locked into a house or apartment or some space," Trump said during a Fox News town hall. "We're not built that way."