Why Your Unemployment Check or Direct Deposit Is Late (and What to Do About It)

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, millions found themselves grappling with sudden unemployment. However, while unemployment benefits were intended to provide relief swiftly, many encountered delays that exacerbated financial strain. Understanding the root causes of these delays can shed light on why so many faced challenges in accessing much-needed support.

Anatomy of Delays

In March 2020, as the pandemic-induced layoffs surged, the efficiency of unemployment benefit processing took a hit. Initially, 95% of claimants received their first payment within 14 days, but this figure plummeted to a mere 45% by June 2020, highlighting the magnitude of the issue. While the situation has improved since then, with the percentage rising to 70% by April 2021, significant hurdles persist.

Identifying the Culprits

Several factors contribute to the delays plaguing unemployment benefit disbursement:

Outdated Systems: Many state unemployment departments operate with antiquated computer systems, some dating back to the 1950s. These systems struggle to handle the surge in claims and lack modern functionalities, such as mobile accessibility, further impeding timely processing.

Overwhelmed Infrastructure: The unprecedented volume of claims overwhelmed state unemployment departments, exacerbating delays. Moreover, eligibility expansions to include self-employed workers and others strained systems already struggling to keep pace.

Fraud Complications: Instances of widespread fraud further complicated operations in some states, diverting resources towards investigations and verification processes. This diversion delayed legitimate claim processing, prolonging the wait for benefits.

Transitioning Procedures: Changes in payment providers or methods, such as transitioning from debit cards to direct deposit, introduced additional complexities. Failure to update information or choose a new payment method promptly could result in payment delays.

Human Error and Oversight: Mistakes on claim applications, confusing questions, and forgotten submissions also contribute to delays. Even minor errors can trigger manual review processes, prolonging the processing time.

Navigating Forward

While addressing these systemic challenges may take time, individuals facing benefit delays can take proactive steps:

Verification Tools: Utilize resources like USPS Informed Delivery to track mailed payments and identify any discrepancies promptly.

Double-Check Information: Verify the accuracy of direct deposit details to avoid processing delays due to incorrect information.

Communication: Stay in touch with unemployment department representatives to address issues promptly and seek resolution.

Prepare for Delays: Given the persistence of challenges, maintaining a robust emergency fund can provide a financial buffer during extended wait times for benefits.

Seek Assistance: Engage with creditors, landlords, or mortgage servicers to explore relief options while awaiting benefit disbursement.


The journey to securing unemployment benefits during the pandemic has been fraught with challenges, from overwhelmed systems to bureaucratic hurdles. While reforms are necessary to address underlying issues, individuals can navigate the process more effectively by understanding the root causes of delays and taking proactive measures to mitigate their impact.

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