No one wants to see economic conditions deteriorate — do they?

When local unemployment rates are released each month, residents and policy makers want desperately to see employment circumstances improving. But here’s the catch: If you’re jobless and you want the full 99 weeks’ worth of unemployment benefits Congress just authorized, your state’s unemployment rate has to be pretty high. That’s because the bulk of this federal money is distributed to ex-employees only when their state’s jobless rate for three months clocks in at elevated levels.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Ann Hatchitt, communications director for the Texas Workforce Commission. “We really don’t want the rate going up but it could mean additional benefits for some people.”

The Labor Department’s latest release shows that unemployment rates in seven states come close to the money, but stand just behind the threshold that would allow the jobless to actually touch the dollars. They are: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Texas, New Mexico, New York and Hawaii.

For states “lucky” enough to qualify, Congress recently extended for laid-off Americans the length of weeks they can collect unemployment insurance — from 26 weeks to 34 weeks. After that time, there’s the potential for another 13 weeks’ worth for those living in states with a jobless rate higher than 6 percent, an extra 26 weeks for those in states with 6.5 percent unemployment, and another 49 weeks in states where 8.5 percent are jobless.

So if you’ve been laid off, your financial fate is determined in part by improving conditions near you, even if they’re actually hundreds of miles away. In the state of New York, the rate averages 8.3 percent, just under the 8.5 percent mark, but in New York City, 9.5 percent of the people are jobless. After last month’s local unemployment report, money dried up for out-of-work families in Vermont, Montana and New Hampshire because too many of their friends and neighbors were lucky enough to find jobs.

“There are sometimes high pockets of unemployment within a state,” says George Wentworth, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project in New York, an advocacy organization for low wage workers.

But losing your job and living in a state plagued with joblessness doesn’t automatically qualify you for money. You must have been employed for more than three months, though state laws vary. You must have lost your job due to no fault of your own — get fired and you’re disqualified. And you’ll prove you’re not only able to work — if you left for a medical reason, forget it — but also that you’re actively looking for another job, says Wentworth.

And regardless of your state’s unemployment rate, the number of weeks’ worth of benefits you receive will always be tied to the length of time worked at your previous job. For example, an engineer laid off after 20 years on the job will collect benefits for longer than one who’d worked just six months.

Regardless, Wentworth suggests that if you qualify, you also put aside any misgivings about collecting unemployment. That’s because your former employer had been paying this tax for the day when the company couldn’t pay you itself, he says. And you can be eligible even if you have an income-earning spouse or consider yourself a person who wouldn’t normally seek out social assistance programs.

“There’s a stigma attached and there shouldn’t be,” says Wentworth. “It’s a safety net intended to help people find their way between jobs.”

This month, meanwhile, unemployment rates in 18 states and in Washington D.C. fell slightly, but not enough to slide checks out of anyone’s hands. Jobless rates rose in 14 states but, for those still under the line, not enough to activate new benefits.

When benefits are not available or they end, says Wentworth, many people resort to accepting jobs that are beneath their qualifications or they collect public assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

“There are a lot of sad stories out there,” he says.

How long will your benefits last?
Here’s the deal: Since June 2008, Congress has been expanding the number of weeks you can collect unemployment benefits. You start with the first program and travel through until your state’s unemployment rate bounces you into the next program.
Program Weeks Trigger rate
Standard benefits 26 weeks None
Emergency unemployment compensation
Tier 1

Tier 2

Tier 3

Tier 4

20 weeks

14 weeks

13 weeks

6 weeks

None

None

6 percent unemployment

8.5 percent unemployment

Extended benefits 13 weeks

20 weeks

6.5 percent unemployment

8.5 percent unemployment

 
Residents that qualify for extended benefits
States, territories with unemployment high enough for all tiers Unemployment rate
Alabama 10.2
Arizona 9.6
California 12.3
Connecticut 8.9
Delaware 8.6
Florida 11.5
Georgia 10
Illinois 10.4
Indiana 10.1
Kentucky 10.1
Massachusetts 9
Michigan 13.3
Mississippi 11
Missouri 9.2
Nevada 14.2
New Jersey 9.7
North Carolina 10.1
Ohio 10.5
Oregon 10.5
Pennsylvania 9.2
Rhode Island 12.1
South Carolina 10.9
Tennessee 10.1
Washington 9
Washington, D.C. 10.1
West Virginia 8.7
Puerto Rico 16.4

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