Unemployment compensation was designed to provide income to people who lose their jobs. The problem is that benefits run out rather quickly. Your claim lasts one year (your benefit year), but most states only pay benefits for 13 to 26 weeks (a little more than six months) during the year.

During periods of high unemployment, you may become eligible for extended benefits. The states or the federal government can extend the benefit period, as Maryland and Kansas did due to the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak,  and the Department of Labor granted states greater flexibility around the awarding of benefits.

The recently passed CARES Act goes even further to help those affected by coronavirus, including part-time and self-employed workers, who usually don't qualify for unemployment. It adds 13 weeks of coverage on top of whatever each state provides, so if you're about to run out you'll get at least another 13 weeks. The legislation also provides an extra $600 of federal money per week, on top of the state benefit (covering unemployment through July 25, 2020, or July 26, 2020), for people affected by coronavirus.

But at some point, benefits will stop.

If your unemployment insurance benefits are about to end, what happens next? Your options are limited. But if you prepare early, you can lessen the impact when benefits run out. Here are some routes to explore.

Key Takeaways

  • The federal government and many states offer unemployment benefits to eligible former employees looking for new work.
  • These benefits, however, typically run out after 13–26 weeks, after which time individuals can no longer receive unemployment.
  • For those in such a situation, specialized programs do exist to extend unemployment for eligible individuals, or you may want to seek alternative employment.
  • In the worst case, if you become eligible you can enroll in state and federal welfare programs for assistance.

Self-Employment Assistance Program (SEAP)

If unemployment is making you think it might make sense to start your own business, check whether your state has a Self-Employment Assistance Program or SEAP. This program allows people receiving unemployment benefits to get training in launching a business.

Most states don’t require people enrolled in a SEAP program to actively look for work; starting their own business is considered their full-time job, with many states requiring a full-time schedule devoted to training. SEAP members participate in entrepreneurial training programs, work with mentors, and develop a business plan.

But SEAP isn’t an extension of unemployment benefits. In fact, you must be early enough in your benefit period to complete the training. You have to be receiving unemployment to be in SEAP, and some states don’t allow enrollment if you don't have 13 more weeks of benefits left at the time you are accepted into the program.

Because SEAP is paid for by grants, not everybody qualifies. If you do meet the qualifications for the program, your state unemployment office will send you information. Given the time limitations, don't wait to be contacted. If you’re interested in the program, call your state unemployment office for more detailed information and eligibility requirements.

The SEAP program does not supply funding for the launch of your business, but any income you earn from your new enterprise will not be deducted from your unemployment check.

Nontraditional Employment

If you can’t find a traditional nine-to-five job, consider something different. Perhaps you have a skill that would allow you to earn money as a freelancer. Another strategy is to contact a temp agency in your area and take a temporary job. Seasonal employment—sales jobs during the holidays, for example—are a third option. Babysitting, tutoring, or websites such as TaskRabbit might provide work.

If you have applied or are planning on applying for unemployment insurance under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, be sure to check with your individual state to determine when your last PUA payment will be issued.

You can also try to train in new areas related to your previous career or start a business of your own, even if you can't get into a SEAP program. Some businesses, including consulting, cost very little to launch.

The CARES Act provides another 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to anyone who is currently receiving benefits—even if their reasons for being on unemployment are unrelated to the coronavirus.

Food Stamps and Cash Assistance

If your funds run low enough, you may be eligible for food or cash assistance. Eligibility varies, but both options are worth checking out to help you get through a difficult period in your life.

Food assistance

The term "food stamps" is no longer used. The program is now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. SNAP is a federal program that provides assistance to low-income individuals and families. 

In Dec. 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture instituted a 20-hour-a-week work (or work training) requirement for nonpregnant adults, ages 18–49, without dependents to receive SNAP payments. The rules change was scheduled to go into effect April 1, 2020, but was temporarily halted on March 13 by a Washington, D.C., federal judge in response to a lawsuit brought by 19 states, plus New York City, the District of Columbia, and some private groups.

Check with your state for any other hunger-assistance programs in addition to SNAP, especially if you have young children.

Cash assistance

These programs, which provide cash payments and other services, are administered at the state level. Massachusetts, for example, has the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) program.

The Bottom Line

There’s no shame in taking a job outside of your career path, especially if your unemployment benefits are running out. Plan for the termination of benefits long before that day arrives.