Your Guide to Collecting Unemployment InsuranceUpdated February 22, 2023
When you lose your job through no fault of your own, you may be able to collect Unemployment Insurance Benefits to act as a short-term buffer against your loss of income. Benefits are administered on a state level, and the amount you receive will vary from state to state based on a number of things.
A Quick Overview
Here are the basic steps involved in filing for and receiving unemployment insurance benefits:
- Make sure you meet all requirements regarding earning enough wages to qualify, that you were let go from your last job for a qualifying reason and meet all other eligibility requirements pertinent to your state.
- Apply for unemployment insurance by phone, online or at a local unemployment office.
- Determine the amount of your benefit and how long you will receive benefits. You can do this on your own, or once you are approved, you will be mailed a determination letter that will provide you with this information.
- Decide how you want to be paid, either through direct deposit or through the use of a debit card.
- To continue to collect weekly benefits, you must meet ongoing requirements, the most important of which are to conduct an ongoing job search and to certify for benefits in a timely manner.
- If you are denied benefits for any reason, you have the right to appeal the decision. You will be provided instructions as part of any denial letter that you receive.
Qualifying for Unemployment Insurance Benefits
To meet the requirements for initially being approved for benefits, and to keep collecting benefits:
- You must have lost your job through no fault of your own such as through a layoff or business shutdown, or you quit for a good work-related cause. This might mean you were asked to perform work that was illegal or dangerous. You may also qualify if you have experienced personal harassment by your employer not related to your job performance or you suffer from qualifying medical conditions. However, if you were fired due to misconduct, violating company polices, excessive absenteeism or other self-inflicted reasons, you may be denied benefits.
- You must have met the minimum wage requirements for your base period as defined by the state where you are filing for benefits. This amount will vary from state to state and you should research what the requirements are for where you live. The amount of wages you earned will determine not only if you are eligible, but how much your benefit amount will be and how long you will receive benefits, generally up to 26 weeks in most states.
- You have to be physically and mentally able to work and also be available to work. This means you must not have any child or dependent care issues and that you have adequate means of transportation to get to and from a job.
- You must be registered with your state’s workforce development or employment development office that will assist you in your job search activities.
- You must participate in required reemployment services if you are selected to do so.
- You must file weekly or bi-weekly claims as directed.
- If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must be in legal alien status now and during the time that you earned your base period wages.
- Submit your claim for benefits in a timely manner. If you delay your submission, you could be denied benefits for that week, or they could be delayed for a long period of time. You will need to certify your claim for benefits by answering a series of questions. You can generally do this by telephone or online.
- Actively conduct and document a job search. Most states have requirements that you must make contact with a minimum number of employers each week, either in person, online or through other means.
- You will need to keep a weekly record of your job search efforts. You must be able to provide proof of your job search to back up your claim if you are asked to do so.
- Report any earnings or any job offers you received. You will need to report the amount you earned, whether you were paid or not, as well as any jobs that were offered to you, and if you accepted the job or turned it down. Qualifying wages include tips, commissions, bonuses, show-up time, military reserve pay, board and lodging.
What You Will Need to File an Initial Claim
In most states, before you can register for unemployment benefits you will need to gather several pieces of information that will be needed to process your claim. Be prepared with the following information:
- Social Security number
- Home address
- Mailing address (if different)
- Telephone number
- A valid email address
- The reason why you lost your last job
- If you are not a U.S. citizen, your Alien Registration Number
- If you were on active duty in the U.S. military in the past 18 months, you will need DD Form 214, Member 4
- If you worked for the federal government at any point in the past 18 months, you will need Standard Form 8 and Standard Form 50.
- Your employment information for the past 18 months, including all contact information and dates worked
- Any additional wages you have received from vacation, severance or other sources
- Other states where you have worked in the past 18 months.
- If you want to have your payments made by direct deposit to your checking or savings account, you will need to also supply your banking information as well
Most states will allow you to file an initial claim either by phone, online or in person at your local unemployment office.
Looking for a Job While Receiving Benefits
One of the primary requirements for continuing to receive unemployment benefits is that you must be ready, willing and able to work and you must conduct an active job search. The specifics will vary from state to state, but some will require you to make contact with potential employers as many as five times each week, and then document your efforts. You will be required to certify that you made those attempts as part of being approved for benefits. Other states have no specific number of contacts, only that you are actively seeking a job.
In addition, all states have some form of job placement and assistance services that you can access. In fact, you are required to register with a state’s job placement and training service within a specified amount of time as a condition of receiving benefits. You could be scheduled for appointments to help with your job search, teaching you how to create a resume, interviewing skills, and other related types of assistance.
As part of your job search efforts, you are also required to document your efforts and this will be used to help certify you for benefits. For each potential employer you contact you will need to keep a record of:
- What action you took (submit an application, interview, etc.)
- How you applied for the position (in person, online, etc.)
- The type of work you were looking for
- The person you contacted as well as their contact information
- The outcome of your action
Tips for a Job Search if You Have a Disability
One of the added challenges people with disabilities face is trying to find a meaningful job. But if you’re disabled, there are some things you should know that may help your task to be easier.
As a disabled job seeker, you are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA protects disabled people from a variety of discriminatory practices, including those in the workplace. Employers covered by the ADA must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with both mental and physical disabilities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the law by outlawing discrimination for all employers with more than 15 employees, including the private sector, state and local governments and other related organizations. An employer may not discriminate against someone with a recognized disability related to recruitment, hiring, promotion, training, leave, lay-offs, benefits and all other related employment activities.
Place your focus on your abilities and your skills. Highlight the positives and what you can bring to a company. If you must ask for a reasonable accommodation, do it in a way that creates a minimal barrier for you to successfully carry out the duties you will be expected to perform. If possible, give examples of how you have succeeded in the workplace and overcame your disability in the past.
Network for success. Disabled or not, every successful job search includes networking as part of the mix. Pursue traditional avenues such as industry groups, Linked-In, employment agencies, job boards and trade associations. But as a disabled person, you should also consider networking with other disabled people who are already in your career field. Chances are, they will be very supportive. A couple of great resources for disabled job seekers to connect with each other can be found on chat rooms in RecruitDisability.com or at The National Business and Disability Council.
Target companies that have been recognized for recruiting disabled workers. With a little effort, you can find companies who conduct regular outreach efforts in an attempt to create disabled friendly workplaces. In addition, certain cities also have been recognized as being more friendly toward disabled workers, and if you’re willing to relocate, that might be an option for you as well.
Collecting Benefits if You’re Self-employed
More people than ever are choosing to work for themselves, especially as the United States moves more and more to a virtual based workplace. That’s exciting for many people, but it does raise the question of whether or not they can collect unemployment during slow work periods.
Many people would assume “no” as an answer, but the good news is, if you meet certain conditions, you may be able to draw unemployment benefits if you’re self-employed.
Here’s the key. You must put money into the system before you can draw money out of the system.
Laws do vary from state to state, but one way to do this is to set up your business as an “S” corporation. Under this structure, you can draw a salary as an employee of the corporation, and pay a percentage of your earnings to your state’s unemployment compensation fund. Be careful though, because as an employer, you’re required to pay Medicare and Social Security taxes on wages for all employees, including any salary you pay yourself.
If you choose to remain as a freelancer or independent consultant, and you don’t put the mechanisms in place to pay into your state’s fund, then you will not be eligible for unemployment benefits when you need them.
Keep in mind that while the federal government has established the overall framework of unemployment benefits, funds are administered by each state, and each state has different rules when it comes to eligibility.
If you are self-employed, it is probably best to check and see what the exact rules are governing you in your state.
How Much Will I Receive? How Long Will I Receive Benefits?
For the vast majority of states, people who qualify for benefits and continue to meet all necessary requirements will be able to draw up to 26 weeks of benefits. But some states may pay as few as 18 weeks of benefits. During times of severe economic hardship, benefits may also be extended for several weeks beyond the 26-week maximum allowed by most states.
Benefits can be paid consecutively, or if you start and then stop a job, you can break up the benefits into more than one series of weeks. However, you can only draw the maximum number of weeks in any one Benefit Year. After that, you will need to wait until you qualify for a new benefit year before you can start collecting benefits again.
Every state uses a different formula to calculate benefits, but most all use the amount of wages you earned in your base period as a basis for calculating benefits. Your base period is the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters before you filed your initial claim. You must have also earned wages in at least two of those quarters to qualify as well.
You can use your state’s formula to calculate your anticipated unemployment benefits, but it may be easier to submit your information on your application and let the state where you reside do the calculations with your anticipated weekly benefit amount.
In some states, you may also receive additional benefits if you have a spouse and children. However, in other states, if you are responsible for child support payments, your unemployment wages may be docked by as much as 50% and diverted to your children’s needs.
When Will I Receive My Benefits? How Will I Be Paid?
Once you are approved for benefits, you can expect to see your first payment anywhere from 10 days to four weeks or more. It all depends on what state you live in, and if there were any issues or questions in processing your initial claim. In some instances, you may receive several payments once the processing of your claims catches up with the system. As long as you continue to meet all requirements related to your claim, you will then get on a regular payment schedule that will allow you to receive payments on the same day either every week or every other week.
Virtually all states offer two different ways to receive payment.
For most states, the default option is to issue the claimant a debit card, either through Visa or Mastercard. After you are approved for benefits, you will be mailed the debit card, and on the appointed day, funds will be deposited to your card. You will then be able to use the card anywhere that debit cards are accepted.
The other option is to have your funds deposited directly into your checking or savings account. If you choose this option, you must first check with your bank to make sure that they will accept this option and how long it will take after deposit to have your funds made available to you.
Do Not Commit Fraud
Every state is quite clear when it comes to committing acts of fraud regarding unemployment benefits. If you lie, cheat or steal to get unemployment insurance benefits, you will be committing an act of fraud. Not only will you be disqualified from receiving benefits, you will also face the possibility of being charged criminally and could face fines or jail time, meaning that a lack of benefits won’t be the biggest problem you’ll face.
Understand that when you submit an application for unemployment benefits, it becomes a legal document. By law, you are required to give your correct name, address, phone and contact information, social security information and employment history. If you use someone else’s information in an attempt to gain benefits, it will be considered identity theft.
In addition, you must accurately report the amount of wages you earned during your base period or alternate base period. Remember, the amount of these wages is used to determine the amount of benefits you will receive. If you intentionally do not report the right amount it will be considered fraud. In addition, if you attempt to collect benefits after going back to work and drawing wages, it will also be considered fraud as well.
One other area where fraud is common is accurately reporting your job search efforts. Most states require a minimum amount of contacts each week to maintain your eligibility. If you don’t meet this minimum you will not get benefits for the week. If you lie about looking for work or the number of possible employers you contacted, you will have also committed fraud and could face consequences.
Why You Might be Disqualified from Getting Benefits
Aside from committing fraud, there may be several other reasons why you could be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits:
- You receive part-time wages or wages for any work performed, including tips. For virtually all states, wages must be reported when earned, not when paid.
- You did not report any earned commissions.
- You did not report any vacation pay or holiday pay.
- You did not report any severance pay.
- You received Worker’s Compensation.
- You were paid employer-sponsored disability payments.
- You received employer-sponsored pension funds.
- You got unemployment insurance under other state.
- You were awarded back pay.
- You were fired due to excessive absences.
- You were fired due to willful misconduct.
- You committed a felony while you were employed.
- You participated in an illegal strike.
- You began serving a jail or prison sentence of longer than 30 days.
- You violated drug and alcohol testing that disqualified you from the work you were hired to do.
- You voluntarily left your employer without good cause.
- You were not ready, willing and able to accept work after filing for unemployment benefits. This might include things such as a family emergency, a personal medical issue or other similar types of things.
Can I Appeal a Decision if I Don’t Get Benefits?
Every state has an appeals process you can go through if you are denied benefits for any reason. If you are denied benefits, you will receive some sort of determination letter telling you the reason why, along with specific instructions on how to file an appeal. The letter will explain your rights and how long you have to file an appeal. Pay close attention to the deadlines, as they are generally not flexible.
If you are denied benefits, you will receive a written determination. If you disagree with the findings, you may file an appeal. The determination provides the instructions for filing an appeal, explains your rights, and states the final date for appeal.
The first level of appeal is usually a hearing at which time you’ll be able to state your case as to why you should be able to draw benefits. Your employer will also be able to present their side of the case as well. An attorney can be retained to represent you in most states. After the hearing, a written decision will be mailed to you.
If you are still denied benefits, you can go to the next level of appeals. In some cases, you will have your case heard by an Administrative Law Judge who will review the facts of your case and then issue a decision. In some states, your case may be heard by a panel, but the process will be pretty much the same.
As a last step in the appeals process, you can file a petition to have your case heard by the Circuit Court in the county or city where you were last employed. While these types of appeals are rare, they are an option for those willing to pursue a claim to this degree.
Unemployment State Guide
Key Terms and Definitions
Each state has many things in common, and in most instances, much of the same terminology will be used to describe important program elements. Here’s a list of some key terms and definitions you should know, keeping in mind that there may be some variances from state to state.
Appeal – If you are denied benefits, you can challenge the decision by filing an appeal in the hopes of overturning the outcome. Many states have multiple levels of appeals that you can go through.
Base Period – In most states, one of the ways your benefits are determined is by what wages you earned during your base period. Generally, it is the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters before you filed your initial claim.
Alternate Base Period – When you don’t make enough wages to qualify for unemployment benefits during your base period, many states will allow you to use an alternate base period as a means of helping you report enough wages to qualify.
Benefit Week – This is the seven-day period that defines a variety of things associated with your claim. You will need to be aware when your benefit week starts and ends in order to comply with various requirements associated with your claim. Benefit weeks vary from state to state.
Benefit Year – This is the 52-week period that starts when you file your initial claim. Most states only allow you to collect benefits for a certain number of weeks within your benefit year. After that, you must wait for a new benefit year to begin before you can file for benefits again.
Claimant — An unemployed person who has filed for unemployment benefits.
Claiming Benefits – This is the process you must go through to certify your eligibility to receive benefits on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Literally, you must put in a claim for benefits.
Dependency Benefits — In some states, you may be able to receive additional benefits if you have a spouse or children.
Maximum Benefit Amount (MBA) – The maximum amount of benefits a claimant can receive during a benefit year.
UI – Abbreviation for Unemployment Insurance.
Waiting Week – In all states, the first week of your benefit year is called the waiting week. You will not collect benefits during this week, but you must still file a claim for benefits.
Weekly Benefit Amount (WBA) – This is how much unemployment compensation you will be paid each week.