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Calculating Unemployment Benefits

written by: Bruce Tyson•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 8/26/2010

Calculate unemployment benefit amounts before applying for unemployment payments. This way people headed to the unemployment line can calculate unemployment benefits before they get there. States generally compute benefits in the same way, so you can prepare yourself in advance.

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    Calculate Unemployment Benefit Base Periods

    Unemployment benefits are calculated on a base period for eligibility and payment calculations. The base period is normally a twelve 567px-Unemployment month period ending one calendar quarter (3 months) prior to the quarter when you file. For example, if you file for unemployment in August (third quarter), your base period would end in March of the same year, which is the end of the first quarter. Your twelve month base period would then begin with April of the previous year.

    You can restate the process of identifying your base period by considering the first 4 of the past 5 calendar quarters. The completed quarter prior to your time of filing does not count as part of your base period. This method is practically universally used to determine how much money you get in unemployment benefit amounts, although new rules affecting part time workers and unemployed workers with family considerations are due to go into effect for 2011.

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Druid223

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    Calculating Unemployment Benefit Amount

    After you have determined your base period, you can estimate your unemployment benefit amount. Before you can do this, you need to learn the rules for your state because each state may calculate benefits differently. In fact, some states have more than one method for calculating benefits so arriving at a correct number can be challenging, especially if you are not aware of all the rules.

    You can begin estimating the amount of your potential benefit by learning the maximum benefit for your state. This amount can vary a lot. For example, South Carolina allows a maximum weekly benefit of $326 per week while Washington State offers up to $570. No matter how much you earned while working you cannot exceed these maximum limitations, suggesting that the usefulness of unemployment benefits diminishes with higher income workers.

    Some states publicize how they calculate unemployment benefit amounts. Washington State, for example, takes your average gross wages from your two highest paid quarters and then multiplies it by 3.85%. A person earning $1,000 per week during those quarters would receive a benefit off about $500 (($13,000+13,000)/2 * .0385 = 500.50). The maximum amount a person can draw there is the smallest of either (1) 26 times their maximum benefit amount or (2) 1/3 of their gross wages from their base year.

    Fortunately, most states offer a benefits calculator that can take much of the confusion out of your estimate. For example, the South Carolina unemployment Web site does not explain in detail how benefits are calculated, but it does provide an unemployment benefit calculator to generate your estimate. That same person earning $1000 per week can punch in $13,000 per quarter and therefore will qualify for the $326 maximum weekly benefit.

    benefits01 If your state does not publicly provide enough information for you to calculate unemployment benefit checks, the best way to proceed is to either phone your local unemployment benefit office for more information or use the online benefit calculator provided by your state. Also, check to see if you can apply for unemployment benefits directly online. Keep in mind that your actual benefit check may differ from your estimates.

    Image Credits: Screen shot taken by Bruce Tyson

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    Other Considerations

    Federal stimulus money may impact the standard amount of your benefit check. For example, South Carolina currently adds $25 of federal money to each weekly check. Other states add additional allowances for dependents that cause actual benefit checks to exceed the state's publicized maximum weekly benefit.

    Other considerations involve the receipt of benefits beyond the standard 26 week unemployment benefit period. Currently, four tiers of federal emergency unemployment benefits (EUC) are available that pay up to an additional 53 weeks for states with the highest unemployment rates.

    Most states have extended benefit (EB) programs that pay benefits for periods of up to 20 weeks that currently make the maximum duration of benefits 99 weeks for those who are unemployed.

    Unemployment benefit claimants should check with their states to determine how their eligibility is calculated and how much their emergency and extended benefits will pay.

    Starting in 2011, most states will have rules to calculate unemployment benefit amounts for part time workers and workers who lost their jobs due to family obligations. Be sure to check with your state about whether these new rules will apply to you.

    Finally, you must take measures to learn your rights under the different unemployment benefit programs. If you calculate your unemployment benefit amount and your check is significantly different, you can appeal the way your state has calculated your benefit payments. You may also be able to appeal the unemployment claim decision and the way your state calculated your eligibility if they have denied you benefits.