Is Unemployment Insurance Retroactive — And How Does It Work?

Even though extended federal unemployment benefits ended in September, out-of-work individuals can still access unemployment benefits and retroactive payments. Benefits vary across states, but those relying on unemployment insurance will likely see a drop in benefits in the coming weeks compared with pandemic-era checks.

“We’re facing the other end of the largest cliff in unemployment benefits history to my knowledge,” says Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. “Some states have tried to offer some benefits to the millions of workers who are now operating with an enormous loss of income. But very few of the 8 million-plus workers who have lost pandemic unemployment assistance this month are going to secure employment in the short run unless the pandemic itself is controlled.”

The unemployment rate continued to decline slightly through the summer, down 0.2% to 5.2% in August, but has yet to return to lower pre-pandemic levels. And while unemployment rates declined from July to August among white, Asian and Hispanic workers, the unemployment rate among Black or African American workers in August was 8.8%, representing a 0.6% increase over July figures.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on the crisis,” says Nicole Marquez, director of social insurance at the National Employment Law Project. “But unemployment insurance is important to many people even when the whole country is not in crisis, particularly for Black and brown people who may experience higher rates of unemployment, longer durations of unemployment or cyclical unemployment.”

Is Unemployment Insurance Retroactive?

Yes, unemployment insurance can sometimes be paid retroactively. Workers usually receive their first benefit check two to three weeks after filing a claim for unemployment insurance, but that application may take more time to process. In these cases, a retroactive payment or back pay may be issued to the date of eligibility.

For example, when a worker files a claim, he or she must provide certain information such as addresses and dates of the former employment, and if information is not provided correctly or accurately, the claim may be delayed. Delays may also occur to do a range of issues outside of an applicant’s control, and in these situations a retroactive payment may also be administered.

“The quality of the unemployment administration remains quite poor and uneven across the country,” says Dutta-Gupta. “Folks routinely have to wait weeks or sometimes months for payments, and there are often mistakes that are no fault of the workers that result in huge amounts owed to the workers and amounts owed back from the workers — money they don’t have because they spent it, reasonably. Even the base unemployment insurance programs we’ve essentially reverted to are quite in need of great investment.”

[READ: Unemployment: What to Do if Your Direct Deposit Is Late.]

How Much Will I Be Paid Retroactively?

Retroactive payments will be paid based on a worker’s eligibility, which varies by state. Excluding expanded federal unemployment benefits, the average unemployment payment across states ranges from $192 to $473 weekly.

Workers may also still benefit from pandemic-era programs in certain states. In California, for example, some of these programs have expired but individuals can still apply for retroactive benefits. So, if a worker became eligible on June 1 to receive unemployment benefits like California’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance but did not certify for benefits, he or she could still be paid retroactively so long as the individual applies before Oct. 6.

How Will Retroactive Unemployment Compensation Be Paid?

The exact method and amount will depend on your state’s process. Common methods of payment include debit card, direct deposit or check.

[Read: How Are Unemployment Benefits Taxed?]

Am I Eligible for Retroactive Unemployment Insurance?

States each set different eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance. Generally, workers are eligible for unemployment insurance if they are unemployed through no fault of their own, worked during a specified period, earned a minimum amount of wages as determined by each state, and are actively seeking work each week.

Retroactive payments occur when an individual meets both the state’s unemployment insurance eligibility requirements and has not yet received his or her benefits.

What Should I Do While I’m Waiting for My Retroactive Unemployment Benefits?

Workers should contact their state’s unemployment insurance program as soon as possible after becoming unemployed. While waiting for unemployment benefits and retroactive payments to arrive, out-of-work individuals can rely on other support.

[Read: What Are Food Stamps and How Do I Access Them?]

“Our lives are not lived in silos of social insurance like unemployment and SNAP like they are in the law,” Marquez says. “When we have a robust unemployment insurance program, it really enhances one’s ability to not just survive but thrive.”

If unemployment benefits have yet to arrive or are falling short of your needs, consider applying for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, leaning on advance child tax credit payments, seeking help from food banks and charities, and contacting your state to see what kinds of coronavirus pandemic relief programs may still be available.

Learn more about how to file for unemployment benefits in your state.

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Is Unemployment Insurance Retroactive — And How Does It Work? originally appeared on

Update 09/28/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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