State Unemployment vs. Federal Unemployment

The Unemployment Insurance Program was established by the federal government in 1935 and continues to operate according to broad guidelines in federal law. Today, however, the program is administered in partnership with the states, which have considerable flexibility in determining eligibility and cash payments. There can also be state-by-state differences in supplementary services like vocational training.



Unemployment insurance (UI) benefits are intended to provide temporary income replacement to workers who have become jobless through no fault of their own. If a claimant was terminated or left a job voluntarily, state officials will rule on his eligibility, taking into account the reason for the decision. In addition, states may restrict benefits based on how long applicants were able to work and/or how much they earned. In general, UI recipients will be required to continue seeking new work.


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State laws can affect both the amount and duration of benefits granted to eligible UI claimants. While cash payments are calculated based on federal rules, as a percentage of each recipient's earnings over a period of 52 weeks, states can cap the total available to their residents. In most cases, benefits can continue for no more than 26 weeks, but a state may be able to extend payments, usually for an additional 13 weeks, during periods of unusually high unemployment. It also is common for states to offer job training and other support services.


Denial or Discontinuation

As the ultimate arbiters of UI eligibility for all resident claimants, state officials are allowed to deny payments based on their own unemployment laws as well as on federal guidelines. For example, they may deny an applicant who fails to appear at a state-mandated interview. Individuals who have started receiving benefits can be cut off if they do not comply with ongoing state requirements, like weekly claim updates. However, anyone whose UI benefits are denied or discontinued has the right to file an appeal.


Claim Processing

Many states allow initial claims to be filed over the phone, online, via postal mail or in person, though there may be different rules for filing updates. In general, all claimants must provide specific, verifiable information about where they worked and how much they earned. Claim processing can take time, so applicants should contact their state unemployment insurance agency as soon as possible after becoming jobless. Also, some states impose a one-week waiting period before issuing a recipient's first check.