Guide to Collecting Unemployment Benefits

This illustration describes why you may not qualify for unemployment benefits including

 Maddy Price @ The Balance

If you've lost your job, you may be eligible to collect unemployment benefits. Unemployment insurance provides workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own with monetary payments for a specific period of time or until they find new jobs.

Benefits are provided by state unemployment insurance programs within guidelines established by federal law. Eligibility for unemployment insurance, benefit amounts, and the length of time benefits are available are determined by state law.

Pandemic Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment claims reached an all-time high of 3.28 million for the week ending March 21, 2020. This is the highest number of initial jobless claims since the Department of Labor started tracking the data in 1967.

The federal and state governments have approved legislation to give additional unemployment benefits to impacted workers, including employees, gig workers, and the self-employed.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Act

The stimulus bill includes an expansion of unemployment benefits. Bloomberg News reports that unemployment insurance will be extended, the benefits will be bolstered by $600 a week for four months, and eligibility will be expanded to cover more workers.

Senator Chuck Schumer says, "The extended UI program in this agreement increases the maximum unemployment benefit by $600 per week and ensures that laid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months. It ensures that all workers are protected whether they work for businesses small, medium or large, along with self-employed and workers in the gig economy."

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program 

The American Action Forum reports that the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program provides 13 weeks of emergency unemployment insurance for people who remain unemployed after they have exhausted state benefits, which are for a maximum of 26 weeks depending on location.

Expanded Flexibility for Eligibility

The Department of Labor has given states the flexibility to amend their laws to provide COVID-19 unemployment benefits. For example, federal law allows states to pay benefits when: 

  • An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work.
  • An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over.
  • An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.

You can file for unemployment benefits online. Many state unemployment websites are overwhelmed with applications, so try to apply early or late in the day when the system is less overloaded.

State Expanded Benefits

Some states have set up new guidelines for eligibility for workers impacted by COVID-19 (coronavirus). For example, in California: "Workers who are temporarily unemployed due to COVID-19 and expected to return to work with their employer within a few weeks are not required to actively seek work each week."

Washington State has developed new rules: "Workers that are asked to isolate or quarantine by a medical professional or public health official as a result of exposure to COVID-19 may receive unemployment benefits and work search requirements could be waived, so long as they have a return date with their employer. The return to work date can be the date the isolation or quarantine is lifted."

New York State is waiving the seven day waiting period for collecting unemployment benefits for people who are out of work due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) closures or quarantines.

Special expanded paid leave will be available for many employees who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

State Unemployment Benefits

Details on eligibility for state unemployment compensation should be available on the state unemployment office website where you live.

Regular unemployment benefits are paid for up to a maximum of 26 weeks, less in some states. In many states, the compensation will be half your earnings, up to a maximum amount. The maximum varies by location. Benefits are subject to federal income taxes and must be reported on your federal income tax return.

The compensation you will receive will depend upon the amount you earned while working, and you also may be required to have worked a certain number of weeks.

Extended Unemployment Benefits

Federal legislation provides for federal funding of extended unemployment benefits due to COVID-19. .

Additional weeks of unemployment will be provided after the maximum 26 weeks (less in some states) has been used.

Benefits are provided through the state unemployment offices, and information on eligibility will be posted online. If you qualify, you will be advised on how to collect when your regular unemployment benefits end.

Get information on extended benefits availability and eligibility on your state unemployment agency website.

Unemployment Eligibility Requirements

In order to receive unemployment compensation, you must meet the unemployment eligibility requirements for wages earned or time worked during an established period of time. You may be able to collect partial unemployment benefits if your work schedule is cut back. Also, in either case, you must be determined to be unemployed through no fault of your own.

If you are an unemployed former civilian federal employee, you may be eligible for benefits under the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees (UCFE) program. You can file a claim if you have been separated from your public sector job, placed into a nonpaid status, or transferred to a different payroll office.

Disqualification From Benefits

The following circumstances may disqualify you from collecting unemployment benefits, depending on state law:

  • Quit without good cause
  • Fired for misconduct
  • Resigned because of illness (check on disability benefits)
  • Left to get married
  • Self-employed
  • Involved in a labor dispute
  • Attending school

When to File for Unemployment

Filing for unemployment should be the first item on your agenda when you've been laid off. It might take two or three weeks to receive a payment, so the sooner you file, the faster you'll get paid. A delay in filing will mean a delay in collecting.

You may be able to file online or over the phone. Review the information you will need to open a claim, then visit your state unemployment office to determine the best way to open a claim and to get started collecting unemployment.

In general, to file a claim you will need:

  • Social Security Number
  • Alien Registration Card if you're not a U.S. citizen
  • Mailing address including zip code
  • Phone number
  • Names, addresses and dates of employment for all employers for the last two years

It generally takes a few weeks after your claim to receive your first benefit check, direct deposit, or debit card. Some states require a one-week waiting period; therefore, the second week claimed is the first week of payment.

Once your claim is approved, you should be able to file weekly online, by phone, or by mail.

State Requirements for Collecting Benefits

Registering with the state job service and actively seeking work is a requirement while collecting unemployment. You must be ready, willing, available, and able to work. The job service may require job seekers to apply for jobs, submit resumes, and not turn down a position if it meets certain standards.

Your state job service offices can be excellent resources to assist with a job search. Many free services are offered, including job listings, career counseling, resume and cover letter writing help, and training. Take advantage of the help they can give you; it will make your job search easier.

Suitable Employment Requirements

What is considered suitable employment varies from state to state? However, it generally refers to a job that offers wages comparable to your recent employment and duties that fit your education level and work experience. Other factors include commuting time, as well as any potential health or safety risks to the job.

Some states define suitable work as anything related to any secondary skill you have, even if the work is not directly related to your previous experience. For example, in New York, suitable work is defined as a job within one hour's transportation, within 80% of the claimant’s previous earnings, and where the pay is the prevailing rate for that work. Also, suitable work in New York is defined as a job for which you are reasonably fitted by training and/or experience. It, therefore, doesn’t matter if the job perfectly fits the duties of your previous job.

Other states consider even more factors when defining suitable pay. In California, the unemployment office also considers “the degree of risk involved” in the job, as well as factors such as the person’s physical fitness, experience, prior earnings, and length of unemployment.

After a certain amount of benefit weeks, some states expand the definition of suitable work.

For example, after a certain number of weeks, suitable work might then include any work that you are capable of performing whether or not you have any experience or training (so long as some sort of training is provided to you).

Here's more information on whether you can turn down a job offer when you're unemployed.

How to Contact an Unemployment Office

To find your local unemployment office, and other helpful information, visit the Department of Labor website.

It can be hard to get through to an unemployment office on the phone. Most states want claimants to file online, and it can be difficult to locate a phone number if you have a question or need to talk to a representative about your claim.

However, in some situations, the only way to get a definitive answer or clarification is to talk to an actual person. The FAQ sections of most state unemployment websites don't cover all circumstances, and unemployment claims can be complicated.

Phone numbers are usually listed in the "Contact Us" section of your state unemployment office website.

A quick and easy way to find a telephone number or email address for your unemployment office is to search Google using your state's name, unemployment office, and phone number. For example, searching Google for "New York unemployment phone" brings you directly to the contact information page for the NYS Department of Labor's Unemployment Insurance contact page.

If English is not your first language, some states have telephone claims lines in other languages. For example, California provides separate phone numbers for English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. If available, information on alternative phone numbers also will be listed on the contact page for the unemployment office.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. 

Article Sources

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