Unemployment benefits in Massachusetts: What to know

Man using his phone at home to read about how to file for unemployment in MA.Image: Man using his phone at home to read about how to file for unemployment in MA.

In a Nutshell

More than half a million people in Massachusetts filed for unemployment benefits in the first month of the coronavirus outbreak. If you lost your job because of COVID-19, here’s how to file for unemployment benefits in Massachusetts.
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Massachusetts has seen a surge in unemployment claims amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Massachusetts’ employment rate has taken a major hit from COVID-19, with the commonwealth’s private sector shedding more than 18,000 jobs in March. Luckily, the state moved quickly to adopt new measures for those affected by the pandemic. The governor waived the state’s one-week mandatory waiting period for unemployment benefits, allowing residents to get faster relief.

Here’s some info about filing for unemployment insurance benefits in Massachusetts.

How do unemployment benefits work in Massachusetts?

The Department of Unemployment Assistance, or DUA, oversees Massachusetts’ unemployment insurance benefits program. You can apply for unemployment benefits online or by phone. In-person services at the agency’s Career Centers across the state aren’t currently available.

Typically, the maximum amount of time you may receive full unemployment benefits in Massachusetts is 30 weeks. However, in times of economic crisis, states may choose to revise their benefits — and the federal government may help fund extended state benefits during such times.

How can I qualify for Massachusetts unemployment benefits?

To qualify for unemployment insurance, you need to meet both federal and state-level requirements. If you’re unemployed, the federal rules say it must be through “no fault of your own.” The federal rules also say you must meet Massachusetts’ wage and work requirements, which include the following:

  • You’ve earned at least $5,100 during the past four consecutive quarters.
  • Your earnings are 30 times the weekly benefit you expect to collect (the weekly benefit you might expect to collect is explained in the next section).
  • You’re legally allowed to work in the United States.
  • You’re out of work or had your hours significantly reduced through no fault of your own.
  • You’re willing to work again once you find a suitable job.

Massachusetts also has weekly eligibility requirements. Every week, you must be actively looking for work and available and physically able to work.

You also may have to complete mandatory seminars through one of the DUA’s Career Centers to stay eligible for unemployment benefits.

How much might I get?

Your weekly benefit amount will be about half of the average weekly amount you made during a designated time frame — called a base period — up to a maximum of $823 per week. The primary base period that the state typically uses to decide weekly payments for most people is the four quarters before you file a claim.

For example, let’s say you earned the following amounts for the past four quarters:

  • Quarter 1: $7,800
  • Quarter 2: $7,800
  • Quarter 3: $8,840
  • Quarter 4: $10,000

The state allows you to take a weekly average from your top two quarters. To figure out your benefit, add the two quarters with the highest earnings and divide the total by 26 weeks.

1. Add the two quarters with the highest earnings.

$8,840 (Quarter 3) + $10,000 (Quarter 4) = $18,840

2. Divide the total by 26 weeks.

$18,840 / 26 weeks = $724.61 average weekly wage

3. Divide the result by 2 to get your weekly benefit amount.

$724.61 / 2 = $362 weekly benefit

Again, during recessions or other difficult economic times, it’s possible these maximums can change.

Are unemployment benefits taxable?

Unemployment benefits are generally taxable, and you’ll be responsible for paying any state or federal income tax due on your Massachusetts unemployment compensation. You can ask the Department of Unemployment Assistance to withhold taxes from your weekly benefits.

How can I apply?

There are currently two ways to apply for unemployment benefits in Massachusetts — online and by phone.

You can apply by phone by calling either 1-877-626-6800 (from area codes 351, 413, 508, 774 and 978) or 1-617-626-6800 (for all other area codes). Customer service by phone is available from Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, but you can only call on certain days based on your Social Security number. If your SSN ends in 0 or 1, call on Monday; 2 or 3, call on Tuesday; 4, 5 or 6, call on Wednesday; and 7, 8 or 9, call on Thursday. Anyone can call on Friday.

You can apply online through the DUA’s online portal.

Whether you apply online or by phone, you need the following information:

  • Address
  • Birthdate
  • Email address (optional)
  • Phone number
  • Social Security number

You will also need to provide the following employment information for the 15 months before your claim:

  • Name(s), addresses and phone numbers of all employers you worked for
  • Employment start and end dates for each employer
  • Reason(s) for leaving each employer
  • Recall dates (if you are returning)

How will I receive my payments?

You must request benefits every week you are unemployed and start looking for work immediately. The DUA should process your initial claim within 21 to 28 days after filing. But it may take longer if there’s an issue with your claim, according to its website.

After reviewing your application and confirming details with your former employer, the DUA will send you a “monetary determination,” which tells you how much you’ll receive in unemployment benefits. Next, you’ll be asked to complete a questionnaire, and you’ll find out if you’ve been approved.

Your first payment will always be a paper check. You may receive subsequent payments by debit card or direct deposit to your checking or savings account, depending on which method you chose when you first applied for benefits.

Direct deposit

When you set up direct deposit, your benefits won’t be paid out until your bank verifies your account, which takes nine business days, according to the DUA. You’ll need to continue requesting benefits and certifying your eligibility every week while waiting for payment, either by phone or online.

Debit card

If you don’t choose direct deposit, you’ll receive your payments on a DUA Debit Mastercard issued by Bank of America. There’s no fee to use the debit card for purchases or to withdraw cash from Bank of America or Allpoint ATMs (though there may be fees for using other ATMs).

When do my benefits end?

Unless they’re extended because of some sort of economic crisis, you may receive unemployment benefits for up to 30 weeks — though many people will reach their maximum benefit amount before those 30 weeks are up. In a typical situation, you can calculate the length of benefits by dividing these two numbers:

  1. Your maximum benefit credit — The lesser of 30 times your weekly benefit amount or 36% of your total wages during your base period
  2. Your weekly benefit amount — Average weekly benefit of your top two quarters

Let’s return to our original example, where we calculated the weekly benefit out to $362. Here’s how to calculate your maximum benefit credit. First, we’ll calculate the lesser of 30 times your weekly benefit amount or 36% of your total wages during your base period.

30 times weekly benefit

30 x $362 = $10,869

36% of total wages

$7,800 + $7,800 + $8,840 + 10,000 = $34,400

$34,400 x .36 = $12,384

In this example, you would choose the first option because it’s the smaller amount. Now you can divide your maximum benefit credit ($10,869) by your weekly benefit ($362).

$10,869 maximum benefit credit / $362 = 30 weeks

What if my claim is rejected?

After responding to the DUA’s questionnaire, you’ll receive a “non-monetary determination,” which includes the acceptance or rejection of unemployment benefits. If your application is rejected, you have 10 calendar days to file an appeal through this form. After the DUA receives your appeal, you’ll have the opportunity for a hearing. You’ll receive a written decision from the review examiner within two to four weeks of the hearing.

Bottom line

Massachusetts’ unemployment insurance program may offer relief as you are navigating the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But before applying, take some time to understand how much you may receive — and how long the unemployment benefits may last.

How has COVID-19 affected Massachusetts unemployment benefits?

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Massachusetts has waived the one-week waiting period for receiving benefits. Here are some other updates.

  • You may qualify for an extra $600 per week as part of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program created by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. If so, you will automatically receive $600 more once you begin receiving Massachusetts unemployment benefits. Keep in mind that this $600 weekly benefit is set to expire on July 31, 2020.
  • You may also be eligible for up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits through this program.
  • In addition, self-employed workers, independent contractors, gig economy workers, and others who otherwise wouldn’t qualify may now be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Learn about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act

About the author: Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Business Insider, Investopedia… Read more.