How to File for Unemployment Benefits

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If you’ve been laid off from your job, chances are high that you qualify to file for unemployment benefits. 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 numerous languages, including Spanish.

Where the option is available, applying online is the quickest and easiest way to file for unemployment. Claims are generally processed much more quickly, so you stand to start receiving benefits sooner than applying via mail. 

What Is Unemployment Insurance?

Unemployment insurance is compensation provided to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, providing 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 laws in your state.

Who Is Eligible to Receive Unemployment Compensation?

Your state establishes eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance coverage, with primary requirements including having worked for a certain period of time and your job having been lost through circumstances beyond your control.

You must 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 established by your state, you are entitled to receive temporary compensation, generally half your earnings up to a maximum amount.

Wrongful termination can result in eligibility for unemployment benefits, as well as possibly some company benefits.

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. The site also features 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 each has a website with the details on how to apply for unemployment benefits. These sites can be found by searching for "your state name unemployment" via your favored search engine. Claimants will be asked to create a username and/or password in order to log in to their account to file for unemployment benefits. Carefully follow the instructions for filing in your state to avoid claim delays. You'll receive a confirmation of your claim once your application is processed.

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, you should generally 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 or ex-service member claiming benefits based on your military service, a copy of your most recent separation form DD 214.
  • 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 allowing (or requiring) 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

    • You may be asked whether you want taxes withheld from your unemployment check.
    • You may also be asked if you’re owed any vacation or holiday pay.
    • The unemployment office will want to know the reason you left the job. Primary criteria for unemployment eligibility features being out of work because of no fault of your own.

    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.

    Is There an Unemployment Waiting Period?

    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.

    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 non-payable 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 those funds.

    Based on the state-by-state differential, it's best to check with your state unemployment office website as soon as you lose your job 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 received from you and your former employer. The unemployment claim date, or "effective date", is the day on which you are eligible to start receiving benefits against your claim. This date is used to determine the number of weeks that you are eligible to receive 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 can access your account each week and apply for benefits, check on the status of the claim to see when payment was made, and 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 check, debit card or direct deposit. When you file for unemployment, you’ll be able to review and select an option for payments. Payments are made weekly or bi-weekly.

    Do I Need to Meet with Anyone in Person?

    Some states require unemployed workers to meet with unemployment department representatives to receive help with their job search and/or re-employment assistance. If your state happens to be among these, there's no need to panic. In many cases, it's a routine meeting designed to assist with your job search; not to put you or your job search under a microscope. Your meeting may be an individual meeting or a group meeting with other unemployed workers. It's important to remember 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 all paperwork in order and make sure that you file income taxes, even if you were unemployed for all or most of the year.

    Avoid Unemployment Filing Scams

    Unemployment benefit scams typically involve websites offering to file for unemployment benefits for you. The sites provide a form for unemployed workers to 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 entering any personal information.

    Have a Question or Need More Information?

    Still have questions about your application or benefits? Contact your state unemployment office. You may find the information you need on the website by accessing the frequently asked questions (FAQ) section or exercising a search option to look for answers to your questions. That failing, call the phone number listed to the website for assistance.