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The worst states for unemployed Americans during COVID-19

Shane Murphy
The worst states for unemployed Americans during COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the U.S. economy, the unemployment rate has soared to 14.7% — the highest since the Great Depression.

To help cushion the blow, the Cares Act — the same federal law that brought you those $1,200 stimulus checks — is providing unemployed Americans with an extra $600 a week for up to four months and an additional 13 weeks of payments if their benefits run out.

Even so, getting by on unemployment during the crisis has been much harder in some states than in others. We've found the 15 worst states, using data from the U.S. Department of Labor, state labor departments and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That data includes the maximum weekly payment and length a person can receive assistance, not including the extra benefits from Cares. It also includes each state's most recent "recipiency rate": the percentage of unemployed people who actually get regular benefits. Those missing out include people who don't qualify under their state’s rules.

15. Delaware

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Wilmington, Delaware.
  • Max benefit: $400
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 26.3%

Roughly 20% of Delaware’s workforce is now jobless, and the number of new sign-ups for unemployment benefits over the last eight weeks has topped 95,000 — close to the total number of claims from the previous three years combined.

The maximum amount of unemployment insurance a person in Delaware can receive is $10,400, which — despite being the highest total payment on this list — still puts the state in the bottom third in the country.

14. Wisconsin

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Madison, Wisconsin.
  • Max benefit: $370
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 30.6%

Since the start of the pandemic, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development has received more than 390,000 applications for unemployment benefits. The maximum amount people in Wisconsin can receive is $9,620, the 11th lowest in the country.

If you find yourself out of work in the Badger State, you'll want to consolidate your debts and take other steps to cut your expenses because it can be a while before you see any jobless benefits.

Many Wisconsinites have found collecting unemployment to be a frustrating ordeal. The software used to process the state’s claims is based on a 50-year-old programming language, COBOL.

13. Indiana

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Indiana State Capitol Building in Indianapolis.
  • Max benefit: $390
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 18.1%

Over 650,000 Hoosiers have filed for unemployment since March, and processing them all has been a challenge. Up to a quarter of the 140,000 people who filed claims during the first week of the pandemic experienced issues with their application.

The maximum amount that someone in Indiana can receive in unemployment benefits is $10,140 — the 14th worst in the country — but Indiana’s low recipiency rate bumped it down a spot on our list.

12. Virginia

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Richmond, Virginia.
  • Max benefit: $378
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 17.4%

Between March 21 and May 2, more than 625,000 Virginians filed for unemployment, with well over 15,000 applications coming in every day. The maximum amount of unemployment insurance someone in Virginia can receive is $9,828, and the recipiency rate is the 11th worst in the country.

The state recently set up an online system to help self-employed individuals collect Cares benefits during the pandemic. However, in mid-May, the Virginia Employment Commission announced that 35,000 people had accidentally been overpaid between $600 and $1,200 and that it would subtract the extra money from their future benefit checks.

11. South Carolina

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Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Max benefit: $326
  • Max duration: 20 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 26.8%

South Carolina has seen almost 500,000 claims for unemployment in the last two months. Due to the high volume of applications, the state’s Department of Employment and Workforce has said payment may take up to 21 business days.

That's a long wait. Finding cheaper car insurance is another way to cut spending until delayed unemployment benefits start arriving.

The maximum total benefits someone in South Carolina can receive is $6,520 — the sixth lowest in the country — but with a recipiency rate above 25%, the state manages to avoid the bottom 10 spots on this list.

10. Louisiana

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Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
  • Max benefit: $247
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 10.9%

More than 325,000 out-of-work Louisianians qualify for unemployment benefits, but the state’s maximum weekly benefit is the third lowest in the country. The total possible payout is just $6,422.

Couple that with a dismal recipiency rate, and things in the Sugar State aren’t looking so sweet.

In mid-May, the state began easing some of its COVID-19 business restrictions in an attempt to curb unemployment, but many businesses will be limited to 25% capacity and required to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines.

9. Idaho

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Boise, Idaho.
  • Max benefit: $448
  • Max duration: 21 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 23%

The Gem State’s maximum benefit is high, but the money can run out fairly quickly — its max duration is the fourth shortest in the country — so the most someone can pull is $9,408.

Idaho has seen more than 131,000 unemployment claims since mid-March, and the abnormally high volume of applications has left the state’s Department of Labor struggling to keep up.

When you fall victim to a coronavirus layoff in Idaho, you don't want to waste any time checking the online job boards because you can face a long delay to collect unemployment. A number of Idahoans have been waiting more than a month and have been unable to get through to the department for answers.

8. Arkansas

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Bentonville, Arkansas.
  • Max benefit: $451
  • Max duration: 20 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 22.4%

Almost 200,000 Arkansans have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. The state’s unemployment rate is projected to be 12.5% in April and hit 17% by the summer, according to a report prepared for the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

If these predictions are correct, it will be the first time unemployment in Arkansas has hit double digits since the early 1980s.

The maximum amount of unemployment insurance available in Arkansas is $9,020. The state’s maximum duration of 20 weeks is tied with Missouri and the Carolinas for the third shortest in the country.

7. Tennessee

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Clarksville, Tennessee.
  • Max benefit: $275
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 15.4%

Since the start of the pandemic, people have filed more than 500,000 claims for unemployment in Tennessee. It’s one of only six states with a maximum weekly benefit under $300. As a result, the total amount available to Tennessee residents is only $7,150.

Like many states, Tennessee is watching its unemployment trust fund dwindle at an alarming rate. According to the Tax Foundation think tank, Tennessee may be able to dole out unemployment benefits only until mid-August.

When the trust fund runs out, the state will need to take out a loan from the federal government to keep paying — and unfortunately for local businesses, that will likely mean higher unemployment taxes to compensate.

6. North Carolina

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  • Max benefit: $350
  • Max duration: 20 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 9.8%

People have filed more than a million claims for unemployment in North Carolina, and the backlog is staggering. According to Gov. Roy Cooper, approximately 361,000 North Carolinians are still waiting to receive their unemployment benefits.

The state’s recipiency rate is a mere 9.8% — the third worst in the country. Not that the benefits are amazing: The maximum amount available in North Carolina is $7,000.

Worst of all? While the maximum duration in North Carolina is 20 weeks, it could be months before anyone receives more than 12. The limit is tied to the unemployment rate and is updated just twice a year.

5. Missouri

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St. Louis, Missouri
  • Max benefit: $320
  • Max duration: 20 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 19.5%

It’s a familiar story in Missouri. Over 536,000 unemployment claims have been filed since mid-March, and the state’s Department of Labor is having a hard time keeping up.

Some applicants say it took them six weeks to get through to the department, and when they were finally able to talk to a representative they were told they’d have to wait another five to six weeks for their payment.

For all their trouble, applicants will see a maximum of only $6,400, the fifth lowest sum in the country. If you're out of work here, you'll probably want to get yourself a side gig to help make ends meet until you find a new full-time job.

4. Alabama

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Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Max benefit: $275
  • Max duration: 14 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 25.6%

Alabamians have filed approximately 475,000 claims for the state’s meagre unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic.

The maximum amount someone can hope for in Alabama is only $3,850 — the second lowest sum in the country. That said, the state seems to be doing a fair job getting those benefits to people who need them.

The Department of Labor says it has paid out 84% of the coronavirus-related claims it’s received since March 16. With a recipiency rate above 25%, the Cotton State gets bumped up a few spots on the list.

3. Arizona

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Tucson, Arizona.
  • Max benefit: $240
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 11.2%

Arizona’s Department of Economic Security has received almost 550,000 claims since the lockdown began. If each came from a different person, that would account for more than 15% of Arizona’s workforce.

The state’s maximum weekly benefit is the second lowest in the country, leading to an overall allowance of just $6,240.

On top of that, a glitch in the Department of Economic Security’s system meant around 130,000 Arizonans didn’t receive their extra $600 in federal unemployment benefits in the first week of the program.

2. Mississippi

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Jackson, Mississippi.
  • Max benefit: $235
  • Max duration: 26 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 9.2%

Life is downright inhospitable for the unemployed in the Hospitality State.

Mississippi has both the lowest maximum weekly benefit and the worst recipiency rate in the country. The most residents can hope to see in unemployment insurance is only $6,110.

Around 225,000 Mississippi residents have filed unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic, and many have struggled to get through to the Department of Employment Security due to the high volume of applications — roughly 46,000 a week.

1. Florida

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Sarasota, Florida.
  • Max benefit: $275
  • Max duration: 12 weeks
  • Recipiency rate: 11%

Since the start of the pandemic, Florida has seen a crushing 1.9 million unemployment claims.

Unfortunately for them, a Floridian who is out of work can only stay on unemployment benefits for three months — tied for the shortest length of time in the country — and see at most $3,300.

To add insult to injury, the Department of Economic Opportunity has paid unemployment benefits to only 28% of its applicants since mid-March. If there were no duplicates, that would be more than a million people stranded without financial assistance.

Next, we offer some tips if you're worried about your job or already out of work.

How to protect yourself

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If you haven't lost your source of income due to the coronavirus, first thank your lucky stars. Then check out our guide on how to brace your finances in case you join the millions off work.

If you have been laid off, you can't afford to mope. Get right back out there.

A number of solid jobs are really easy to get right now, as many big-name employers are still hiring amid all the layoffs.

You might want to consider switching to a job you can do from the comfort and safety of your own home.

The important thing is having a strategy, whatever it might be.