In March 2020, before Americans faced widespread layoffs from the COVID-19 pandemic, 95% of people filing for unemployment benefits received their first payment within 14 days. The percentage hit a low of 45% in June 2020. While the recovery has been rocky, the number was back to 70% in April 2021.

Still, that leaves a lot of people who may be going without any income for longer than they can afford, often for reasons beyond their control that can take weeks or months to resolve. If you’re wondering what’s at the root of your payment delay, here are the most likely possibilities.

Key Takeaways

  • Overwhelmed employees and outdated computer systems are the cause of many unemployment payment delays.
  • Widespread unemployment fraud has further slowed operations in some states.
  • Getting in touch with an unemployment department worker who can resolve your problem might take longer than you can afford.

Your State’s Unemployment System Is Antiquated

According to reporting by The Washington Post, the District of Columbia’s unemployment website was based on 1950s programming language. It was also built in the early 2000s, before smartphones. That meant that anyone without access to a desktop or laptop computer has to make a claim by phone. What’s more, a single pandemic-related change to unemployment benefits took computer programmers more than two weeks to implement.

Your State Unemployment Department Is Overwhelmed

Again according to reporting by The Washington Post, states are still behind on processing claims 14 months into the pandemic. They’ve simply been overwhelmed by volume this entire time. Not only were far more people unemployed but also people normally not eligible for benefits, such as self-employed workers, became eligible, adding to the demands on states’ systems.

Widespread Fraud Has Slowed Operations

In states where systems were better equipped to pay claims quickly, fraudsters took advantage and filed for benefits that they hadn’t earned. Once states discovered the fraud, they had to dedicate resources to investigating the fraud and trying to make sure they were only paying legitimate claims.

Your State Is Switching Payment Providers

In Maryland, the Division of Unemployment Insurance switched from using Bank of America to Wells Fargo. Anyone who was getting their benefits deposited to a Bank of America debit card had to switch to being paid via direct deposit or check. Anyone who didn’t actively choose a new payment method could experience a benefit payment delay.

Your Claim Check or Debit Card Was Lost or Stolen

Mail can be misdelivered. And when someone receives misdelivered mail, they don’t always do the right thing and track down its owner. Another problem is that many people have unsecured mailboxes that don’t lock, and thieves sometimes go around stealing mail from them.

It can be hard to know if your unemployment payment may have been lost or stolen, especially if you can’t get hold of someone at the unemployment department to verify when it was mailed. Going forward, consider using USPS Informed Delivery, a free service that you can sign up for at the U.S. Postal Service’s website. It can help you track the mail that you’re supposed to receive each day and see if something that was mailed to you never arrived. 

It can take a long time to get a replacement payment from your unemployment department. It may need to investigate and cancel checks or debit cards before issuing new ones.

You Made a Mistake on Your Claim

If you’re filing for the first time, or the claim forms have changed, or your state’s filing system has changed, then it’s easy to make a mistake on your unemployment application. Unfortunately, sometimes the smallest thing, such as failing to check a box, can keep your claim from being automatically approved. Instead, it will end up in a long queue of claims that need a human to review them.

Here are some of the mistakes that people make when filing for unemployment.

You accidentally answered a question incorrectly

According to reporting by ABC7 News in San Francisco, a confusingly worded question that many people answered incorrectly caused their California unemployment payments to get stuck on “pending” for weeks. The question asked people who were recertifying their qualification for benefits if there was any reason besides sickness or injury that they couldn’t work. 

Many people answered “yes,” because the pandemic was the reason they were out of work, but the system was set up assuming that people would answer “no” even if the pandemic was causing their unemployment. Their applications then got categorized as requiring an interview with an unemployment department representative, creating delays that can take weeks to resolve.

You forgot to submit your weekly claim

“What is time?” became a familiar saying as the pandemic dragged on. Without their usual activities and events, days and weeks blurred together. Even with life getting closer to pre-pandemic normal, it’s still easy to get busy and lose track of things on your to-do list. It might be worth double-checking to make sure you’ve actually filed a claim for every week that you’ve been out of work.

Your direct deposit information was incorrect

Signing up for direct deposit is often a faster, more secure way to get your unemployment benefits. However, it’s easy to make a mistake when you’re typing in your routing or account number.

Try logging in to your unemployment benefit account and verifying that your information is correct. You might ask someone whom you trust to read aloud the numbers you entered while you look at one of your checks and make sure that things match up.

Your unemployment department is still verifying your bank account

Once you’re sure that your direct deposit information is correct, you may still have to wait a couple of weeks to start getting your payments while your unemployment department verifies your bank account. In Massachusetts, for example, this process takes nine business days. During that time, the department puts your benefits on hold, and you don’t get paid.

You’ve Filed a New Claim

The first time that you file for unemployment, it can take weeks to get paid. In New York, it can take three to four weeks to process a new claim. In Missouri, it can take 22 days. And, as we’ve seen, many other things can cause delays, even if you do everything correctly when you file.

The Bottom Line

With outdated computer systems, overwhelmed unemployment staff, fraud, and confusing claims processes, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it especially hard to get your unemployment check, debit card, or direct deposit on time. Add human error to the equation, and delays can compound. These problems seem unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. 


The solution for the future is to have a robust emergency fund, as social safety nets don’t always work as intended. For now, while you’re waiting for your benefits, the best option may be to talk to your creditors, landlord, or mortgage servicer about relief options while you’re trying to get in touch with an unemployment department employee who can help with your case.