How to File for Unemployment Benefits

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If you’ve been laid off from your job, you should be able to file for unemployment benefits online without visiting an unemployment office. In most states, unemployed workers can apply online, over the phone or, in some cases, by mailing a form. Many states provide information for applicants in Spanish, and in other languages.

Applying online is the quickest and easiest way to file for unemployment. Your claim will be processed right away, and you will start receiving benefits sooner than if you applied by mail.  

What Is Unemployment Insurance?

Unemployment insurance is compensation provided to workers who lose their job through no fault of their own. Unemployment provides monetary payments for a specific period of time or until the worker finds a new job. 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.

Who Is Eligible to Receive Unemployment Compensation?

Depending on your state there will be eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance coverage, including having worked for a certain period of time, and that your job was lost through circumstances beyond your control. Wrongful termination can result in eligibility for unemployment benefits, as well as possibly some company benefits.

In addition, you need to be considered an employee – as opposed to an independent contractor – at a company that pays into the unemployment insurance fund for your state. If you meet the eligibility requirements, you will be entitled to receive temporary compensation. In many cases, the compensation will be half your earnings, up to a maximum amount.

How to File for Unemployment Benefits

Filing varies by state. In New York, for example, filing for unemployment benefits is relatively simple. Unemployed workers can visit the Unemployment Benefits website to file a new unemployment claim, claim weekly benefits, or check on the status of an existing unemployment compensation claim. Filing by phone is also an option.

In California, workers can also file an unemployment insurance claim by completing an online form. In addition, there is a form that can be printed out, completed, and mailed or faxed, as well as a toll-free number you can call to file for unemployment.

Most states have similar options, and all have a website with the details on how to apply for unemployment benefits. Be sure to carefully follow the instructions for filing or your claim could be delayed.

Search Google for "your state name unemployment" to find the website for your location. You'll find detailed instructions on how and when to apply for benefits, and the information you need to provide to open a claim.

Where to File When You Worked in a Different State

If you live in one state and worked in another, or if you have moved, usually, you should file your unemployment claim with the state where you worked.

If you worked in a state other than the one where you live or if you worked in multiple states, the state unemployment office where you now live can provide information about how to file your claim with other states.

Information Needed to Apply for Unemployment

Before you file, check with your state unemployment office to determine the best way to open a claim. Requirements may vary from state to state, but here’s a sampling of the information you will need to have available when filing for unemployment:

  • Your Social Security number.
  • Your driver's license or motor vehicle ID card number (if you have one).
  • Your complete mailing address, including street, city, state, and zip code.
  • A telephone number where you can be contacted during business hours.
  • If you are not a U.S. Citizen, your Alien Registration card number (if you have a card).
  • The full company names and addresses of all employers that you worked for in the last two years, including employers located in another state.
  • The Employer Registration number or Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) of your most recent employer (if you have either).
  • If you were a federal employee, copies of forms SF8 and SF50, if you had federal employment within the last 18 months.
  • If you’re a service member, your copy of your most recent separation form DD 214, if you’re an ex-service member claiming benefits based on your military service.
  • If you’re unable to print a confirmation of your unemployment claim, have a pen and paper available to write down your claim information.
  • For states that allow direct deposit of your weekly unemployment benefits into your bank account, you must have a check available in order to enter your bank routing and checking account numbers.

Questions You May Be Asked

If you quit or if there are questions about your termination, the application process may be more complicated. However, if your claim is denied, there is an appeals process. Here's how to appeal if your claim is denied.

Claimants will also be asked to create a user name and/or password in order to log in to their account to file for unemployment benefits. You'll receive a confirmation of your claim once your application is processed.

Is There an Unemployment Waiting Period?

There may be a waiting period in your state. Unemployment insurance waiting periods are 100 percent state-driven. Many states have what is known as a "waiting period," otherwise referred to as a "waiting week" as part of their unemployment insurance laws. A "waiting week" occurs during the first week of unemployment when an out-of-work employee is eligible to receive unemployment benefits but receives no unemployment compensation.

For example, in New York State, you must serve an unpaid waiting period equivalent to one full week of unemployment benefits before you receive payments. Minnesota has a nonpayable waiting week before benefits can be collected. In some locations, the waiting week benefits will be paid, but you will have to wait until the end of the claim period in order to collect your money.

Based on the state-by-state differential, as soon as you lose your job, you need to check with your state unemployment office website for information regarding the unemployment waiting period in your location.

Unemployment Claim Dates

The Unemployment Department of your state will determine your eligibility, based on the information they receive from you and your former employer. The unemployment claim date is the day on which you are eligible to start receiving benefits. The unemployment claim date is also referred to as the "effective date" of your claim. This date is used to determine the number of weeks that you have been receiving benefits and the start date of your eligibility. 

While receiving unemployment, you must be actively willing to work and actively looking for work. The definitions of actively willing to work and actively looking for work also vary by state.

Filing for Weekly Benefits

Once you’ve filed your initial claim for unemployment benefits, you’ll be able to go to your account each week and apply for benefits. You can also check on the status of the claim to see when payment was made and to review how much unemployment compensation is left in your account. Mark your calendar with the day you need to file. Payment won't be made unless you file for benefits each week for which you're eligible.

Unemployment Payments

Depending on your state, unemployment benefits are paid via checkdebit card or direct deposit. When you file for unemployment, you’ll be able to review and select an option for payments, typically debit card or direct deposit. Payments are made weekly or bi-weekly.

Do I Need to Meet with Anyone in Person?

In some states, unemployed workers may be required to meet with unemployment department representatives to receive help with their job search and/or re-employment assistance. If this happens to you, the first thing to do is not panic. In many cases, it's a routine meeting designed to assist with your job search and not put your job search under a microscope. Your meeting may be an individual meeting or a group meeting with other unemployed workers.  The most important thing to remember is that you'll need to bring records of your work search if you are required to apply for a certain number of jobs each week.

Taxes on Unemployment Benefits

The Internal Revenue Service counts unemployment insurance benefits as income, so your check is taxable. Depending on the state, state and federal income tax can be withheld from your check. Keep your paperwork in order, and make sure that you file your income taxes, even if you were unemployed for all or most of the year.

Avoid Unemployment Filing Scams

When filing for unemployment be careful to avoid scammers who say they will file the claim for you. Unemployment benefit scams typically involve websites that offer to file for unemployment benefits for you. The sites provide a form that unemployed workers fill out to supposedly collect unemployment compensation. In other cases, phone calls or email may be used to solicit personal information from unemployed workers. However, a third party cannot file for unemployment for you. You’re the only person who can apply for unemployment and your claim has to be filed directly with your state unemployment office.

 Make sure you ‘re applying directly on your state's unemployment website (the URL of the website will include .gov) before you enter your personal information online.

Have a Question or Need More Information?

Do you have a question about your application or benefits? The best thing to do is to contact your state unemployment office. You may find the information you need on the website, or you will be able to find a phone number to call for assistance. Most sites have a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section or a search option to look for answers to your questions.

Please note that unemployment eligibility, requirements, and filing varies from state to state. Check with your state unemployment office for details on what applies to you.