How to Collect Unemployment

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.

There were 712,000 claims filed for the week ending November 28, 2020, and over 20 million people are currently collecting unemployment benefits. This is the highest number of claims since the Department of Labor started tracking the data in 1967.

The November 2020 unemployment rate fell to 6.7%, and employers added 245,000 jobs. Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates declined for adult adult women (6.1%). For adult men (6.7%), teenagers (14%), Whites (5.9%), Blacks (10.3%), Hispanics (8.4%), and Asians (6.7%) there was little change.

Collecting Unemployment Benefits

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.

The Department of Labor's Economy Recovery portal has information on filing for unemployment in your state, plus resources for housing, food, health care, and more.

How to File for Unemployment

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
  • Driver's license or State ID card number
  • 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 Unemployment Benefits

Details on eligibility for state unemployment compensation are 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.

Expanded Unemployment Benefits

Extended Unemployment Benefits

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

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.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Act

The stimulus bill includes an expansion of unemployment benefits, including: 

  • Expanded Unemployment: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for workers who have traditionally not been eligible for Unemployment Insurance (UI).
  • Supplemental Payments: An additional $600 per week payment through the end of July 2020 to recipients of Unemployment Insurance (UI) (employees) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) (including self-employed individuals, independent contractors, people with a limited work history, and those who can't work because of coronavirus.)
  • Extra Weeks of Unemployment: An additional 13 weeks of unemployment (Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation) (PEUC) for those who no longer have state unemployment benefits available.

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.

Expanded Eligibility for Benefits

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.

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: "In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Governor Inslee has waived the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits. This means you can be eligible for UI benefits the first week of your claim. Once we determine your eligibility, we process and issue payments within a few weeks of receiving a claim. The average unemployment claim is approved with no issues, and benefits become available shortly after you file your weekly claim. Other claims require more research to reach a decision on whether you’ll receive benefits and could take a little longer. Continue to file weekly claims during this time."

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.

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.

This illustration describes why you may not qualify for unemployment benefits including "Quit without good cause," "Were fired for misconduct," "Resigned because of illness (check on disability benefits)," "Left to get married," "Are/were involved in a labor dispute," and "Are attending school."
Maddy Price @ The Balance

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

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.

Some of the requirements for collecting benefits have been waived due to the coronavirus public health emergency.

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 your state unemployment agency 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

  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "Unemployment Insurance." Accessed Feb. 28, 2020.

  2. Department of Labor. "Unemployment Weekly Claims." Accessed Dec. 3, 2020.

  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Situation Summary." Accessed Dec. 4, 2020.

  4. U.S. Department of Labor. "State Unemployment Insurance Benefits." Accessed Feb. 28, 2020.

  5. CareerOneStop. "How Do I Apply?" Accessed Feb. 28, 2020.

  6. American Action Forum. "Enhanced Unemployment Benefits in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act." Accessed March 25, 2020.

  7. House Committee on Appropriations. "H.R. 6201, Families First Coronavirus Response Act." Accessed March 19, 2020.

  8. U.S. Department of Labor. "Unemployment Insurance Extended Benefits." Accessed March 21, 2020.

  9. U.S. Department of Labor. "Unemployment Insurance Relief During COVID-19 Outbreak." Accessed April 12, 2020.

  10. SHRM. "The Coronavirus Aid, Response, and Economic Security Act “CARES Act” Accessed March 28, 2020.

  11. Capital News Forum. "Senate Cuts Coronavirus Rescue Deal; Schumer's Explanation." Accessed March 25, 2020.

  12. CareerOneStop. "Unemployment Benefits Finder." Accessed March 19, 2020.

  13. U.S. Department of Labor. "U.S. Department of Labor Announces New Guidance On Unemployment Insurance Flexibilities During Covid-19 Outbreak." Accessed March 14, 2020.

  14. CA.gov. "Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19)." Accessed March 12, 2020

  15. Washington State Employment Security Department. "For Workers and Businesses Affected by COVID-19 (coronavirus)." Accessed March 12, 2020.

  16. New York State Department of Labor. Unemployment Insurance. Accessed March 14, 2020.

  17. U.S. Department of Labor. "Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees." Accessed Feb. 28, 2020.

  18. New York State Department of Labor. "Work Search: Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed Feb. 28, 2020.

  19. California Employment Development Department. "Suitable Work." Accessed Feb. 28, 2020.