How long does unemployment insurance last?

Getty Images

In the time since nonessential businesses began to close their doors in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the U.S. labor market has wiped out all the job gains it made in the decade since the Great Recession.

With roughly 21 million Americans out of work in May who filed for unemployment, many are anxious about how long the financial assistance will tide them over.

Under normal circumstances, the length of time workers can receive unemployment varies by state. While the majority offer 26 weeks of benefits, coverage ranges from a low of 12 weeks in North Carolina to a high of 28 weeks offered in Montana.

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress in March extends the length of time workers across the country can receive unemployment coverage.

How long unemployment benefits last during the pandemic

Under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, workers can qualify for an additional 13 weeks of benefits on top of their state coverage.

While the federal government issued guidance to states on April 10 about how to implement extended coverage under PEUC, not all states have made it available months later.

According to a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson, eight states still have not begun administering this extended benefit as of June 18: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, New Hampshire, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

If workers live in a state where their extension of unemployment under PEUC is less than 39 total weeks, they can apply to make up the difference under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

That means, no matter where you live, you can likely qualify for a total of 39 weeks of unemployment coverage. In Montana, residents can qualify for 41 weeks.

Extended unemployment coverage is also available to workers who were out work prior to the pandemic. People who have been unemployed and exhausted their state benefits as far back as July 1, 2019 can apply for PEUC today to receive 13 weeks of federally funded benefits. These workers will also receive $600 per week from the government for their benefit period until July 31.

Some workers may earn more from unemployment than their jobs

Given the possibility to receive unemployment aid for nearly 10 months, along with the weekly $600 federal boost through July, some workers may wonder whether they'd fare better being laid off in order to receive benefits, rather than remaining on payroll for a job with reduced hours or doing work that may put them at risk of contracting the virus.

Indeed, in some situations, workers now receiving both state and federal assistance are able to earn more than what they'd make if they were still working. According to calculations from The New York Times, workers in more than half of states will receive, on average, more in unemployment benefits than they did from their normal salaries.

Legislators say replacing 100% of earnings for the average worker was by design in order to provide a crucial lifeline to Americans to keep the economy afloat as much as possible.

"This size of an increase is unprecedented," Wayne Vroman, an economist with The Urban Institute, told CNBC Make It. In 2009, following the Great Recession, a federal stimulus package increased unemployment benefits by just $25 per week. "So $600 is in different league; it could go a long distance in stabilizing American household income and help to maintain purchasing power for the consumer sector of economy."

Additionally, "In this particular period in history, getting an unemployment check isn't good just for you, but it's good for the local economy, and it's an important public health measure," Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, told CNBC Make It. "People need to take these benefits and not be making ends meet by going out to work."

While expanded unemployment benefits can provide jobless Americans with continued income, it doesn't make up for lost employer-sponsored benefits, such as health insurance. Workers who received health insurance from their employer can remain covered for up to 18 months through COBRA, but this is often an expensive option.

Furloughed workers, meanwhile, can retain company-sponsored benefits if their employer chooses to offer it, and they also qualify for unemployment.

More unemployment coverage could be on the way

Expanded unemployment benefits provided under the stimulus bill are payable through the end of 2020. But it's possible Congress will pass more legislation to extend unemployment payouts and length of coverage the longer the pandemic upends the economy.

As unemployment rates rose during the 2008 financial crisis, for example, Congress passed legislation to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks. As the Great Recession wore on, Congress passed additional extensions to provide benefits through 2013, or up to a total of 99 weeks, for states experiencing continued high unemployment.

Evermore tells CNBC Make It she expects expanded financial lifelines to kick in soon.

"We are pushing for better automatic triggers for extensions," Evermore says, "so Congress doesn't have to keep coming back to extend benefits."

Check out: The best credit cards of 2021 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

Don't miss:

What it's like to be a working drag queen in NYC
What it's like to be a working drag queen in NYC