Is Unemployment Insurance Retroactive — And How Does It Work?

Americans who are out of work may be able to access unemployment insurance if they meet certain eligibility requirements. These benefits vary across states, but unemployment insurance offerings have contracted as the additional benefits offered during the coronavirus pandemic expired in September 2021.

“The pandemic programs filled in some of the gaps of our regular unemployment insurance system,” says Jenna Gerry, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. For example, “with the pandemic unemployment compensation provided an extra $600, then scaled back to $300, you were able to account for the extremely low wage replacement amount. … Then they went away in September, and many workers were left with nothing.”

How Does Unemployment Insurance Work?

Over the past year, unemployment rates have remained relatively low. The national unemployment rate spiked at 14.7% in April 2020, and has since fallen to 3.7% as of August, up 0.2% from the previous month.

However, as the U.S. Federal Reserve aims to combat high inflation and continues to raise interest rates, many economists warn of a coming recession and a softening job market. If an economic downturn is ahead, Gerry says the U.S. system as it stands is not prepared to support another spike of unemployed workers.

“When it was created in the 1930s, (unemployment insurance) was a shared federal and state program, but there were essentially very few federal standards put in place,” she says. “Right now, we have 53 separate, very different unemployment insurance systems. Your ability to receive benefits, how quickly you’re going to get those benefits and how adequate those benefits are vary dramatically depending on what state you live in.”

In fact, some states are curtailing unemployment insurance benefits even further. This year, legislation in numerous states was proposed to reduce the duration of unemployment insurance, Gerry says, and three — Iowa, Oklahoma and Kentucky — passed laws to reduce the duration of unemployment insurance.

While 26 weeks was, at a time, standard duration across states, in Iowa, for example, unemployment benefits are offered for a maximum of 16 weeks.

“On top of benefit reductions, states are making it harder for workers unemployed through no fault of their own to receive any benefits,” Kali Grant, associate director at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative, wrote in an email. “Some states are hoping to cut off workers too soon by shortening the maximum number of weeks, make eligibility overly-stringent, and require workers to accept almost any job, regardless of the job’s pay, hours, location, and training requirements.”

A return to pre-pandemic benefit offerings, alongside other state reductions, can have a particularly harsh impact on minority individuals who are unemployed.

“Unfortunately, the states looking to weaken UI are often states where workers — particularly workers of color, and especially Black women–are already among the most vulnerable in the country — with the lowest minimum wages, right-to-work laws, and sparse workplace protections,” Grant says.

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 due to a range of issues outside of an applicant’s control, and in these situations a retroactive payment may also be administered.

[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 maximum benefits range from $235 to $974 weekly.

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, individuals who are unemployed can rely on other support.

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

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 09/13/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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