Unemployment Benefits

How to File a Claim

Unemployment line waiting for an interview
••• Michael Krasowitz/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Job loss is emotionally devastating, of course, but the financial effects can be even worse. Without a regular paycheck, it might be difficult or impossible to pay your rent or mortgage, car payments, and credit card bills. Falling behind on these payments can cause you to incur penalties that will lead to future financial hardship and possibly even cause you to lose your home. Fortunately, state-administered unemployment benefits can help keep you afloat until you find a new job.

Employers pay for unemployment insurance through federal and state taxes. In some states, employees pay unemployment taxes as well. Each state administers its own unemployment benefits program.

Even if you think you have enough savings to get you through a job loss, or you think you will find a job quickly, it is worth filing a claim for unemployment benefits. The unexpected could occur and your period of joblessness could last longer than anticipated. This "temporary paycheck" could help keep you from falling into financial ruin. Here is what you need to do to file a claim and keep your benefits active for as long as possible.

How to Apply for and Use Unemployment Benefits

  1. Contact the Unemployment Insurance Division of your state's Department of Labor to find out if you qualify for benefits. Each state determines individuals' eligibility, but generally speaking, you must have lost your job through no fault of your own and must be willing and able to work. Find details, including contact information for state unemployment offices, on the Unemployment Benefits Finder on CareerOneStop, a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor: Employment and Training Administration.
  2. Gather the information required to file your claim, including your Social Security number, your employer's name and address, and the exact dates of your employment. They may also want information about your previous employers.
  3. Apply for benefits as soon as possible after losing your job. A mandatory waiting period will delay your first payment for about one week after applying for benefits. Many states require online applications for unemployment benefits online, but some also allow individuals to do it by phone.
  4. Engage in a job search. Don't wait until your benefits run out. To maintain them, you must be actively looking for work. Turning down any suitable offers can mean termination of your benefits.
  5. From time to time, the unemployment office may tell you to come in for an appointment to discuss your job search progress. Ignoring these requests will jeopardize your benefits. Always be punctual and bring proof that you are actively looking for work and anything else that is required.
  6. If you decide to take a part-time or temporary job to supplement your income while you look for a full-time permanent position, check the rules in your state first to find out the maximum amount of earnings allowed. Going above the limit can cause you to lose your benefits.

Other Things to Know About Your Unemployment Insurance Benefits

  • States pay unemployment benefits to recipients for a maximum of 26 weeks. In extremely challenging times when unemployment rates are unusually high, for example, during a recession, the federal government or state governments may extend benefits for a specified period.
  • Your benefits will be based on a percentage of your earnings over a 52-week period. It varies by state and will not exceed a maximum amount.
  • Unemployment insurance is meant to pay for only the essentials, such as rent or mortgage and food. Make adjustments to your lifestyle, accordingly.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor's American Job Centers, located around the country, offer free career-related services including workshops about resume writing, job interviewing, and networking. One-on-one employment counseling is also available. Job centers provide job training to individuals who need new skills to make them more employable. There is also access to local employment listings.
  • Expect to receive your benefits by direct deposit to your bank account or a debit card.
  • The state may reject your application for unemployment benefits. Reasons for denial may include quitting your job without a good cause, getting fired for misconduct related to your job, being unavailable to work or unwilling to accept a suitable job offer, or lying to get unemployment benefits. If you are denied benefits, you can appeal the decision. Check with your state to find out how (U.S. Department of Labor. Unemployment Benefits: What If I'm Denied?. CareerOneStop Worker Reemployment.).