Unemployment Benefits – How to File and Other Frequently Asked Questions

by Ryan Guina

Unemployment sucks. I know – I’ve been there before. I was unemployed for 5 months after I separated from The USAF. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work, far from it. I just had a difficult time finding work. The fact that I relocated across the country and didn’t have a network to tap into made finding a new job an even more difficult task.

The good news is that unemployment insurance is there to help you bridge the gap between jobs. Here is what you need to know about unemployment insurance and how to claim unemployment:

What is unemployment insurance?

Federal Unemployment Insurance is a safety net designed to assist workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own. Federal Unemployment Insurance is run by your local state government but is funded by federal and state taxes which are paid by employers.

How to qualify for unemployment benefits

Each state is has its own requirements regarding unemployment benefits eligibility, so be sure to check with the state in which you are filing. In general the following rules will apply:

No fault loss of employment. Most people who become unemployed through no fault of their own are eligible to file unemployment benefits. Most people will be eligible for unemployment benefits if they were laid off for lack of work, and sometimes if you are put on a leave of absence, such as a temporary plant closing, or seasonal work. You may also be eligible for other reasons of unemployment, such as being out of work due to a natural disaster, employer went out of business, job moved overseas, you completed your military obligation, or other reasons. Be sure to check with your state regarding your particular situation.

Must be physically able to work. You must be physically able to work, available for work, and actively seeking suitable work. Suitable work is generally considered employment in an occupation in line with your prior training, education, and experience. Work may not be considered suitable if the wages, hours, or working conditions are not as favorable as most jobs in your occupation in the local labor market or if you are not physically able to perform the work.

Note: If you are physically unable to perform work due to a disability, you may not be eligible for unemployment benefits. This is because unemployment benefits and disability benefits come out of different pots of money. If you are physically unable to perform work, you should look into state disability benefits.

Where to file for unemployment benefits

Each state is responsible for running its unemployment office. A complete list of state unemployment offices can be found at the US Department of Labor Workforce Security site.

When you should file for unemployment benefits

You should file for unemployment benefits as soon as possible, because you can only receive benefits in weeks which you file a claim. Most states have a 1-2 week waiting period, but you must still file to get on the books and continue filing each week that you remain unemployed. Provided that your unemployment benefits claim is approved, you will most likely receive your first unemployment check during your second or third week of unemployment, depending on your state’s unemployment benefit rules.

How to file for unemployment benefits

Gather your information. You will need to provide your state labor board (or other governing agency) with your personal and work information. Be prepared to provide your SSN, employment history for the previous 2 years (employer name, location, position held, etc.), date you last worked, wage history, union information if applicable, DD Form 214 if recently separated from the military, education level, and possibly other information.

Apply online, by phone, or in person. Different states have different setups, but most states now offer online unemployment benefits application, as well as by telephone or in person. In some states it is mandatory to meet with a career assistance advisor at some point.

Delay in approval? Keep filing weekly claims. If your application is not approved right away, that does not mean you are not or will not be eligible for unemployment benefits. Sometimes an extra form needs filled out of more information about your claim is needed. Keep filing for unemployment benefits because you may receive benefits in arrears. If you wait for a decision, you will not receive benefits for weeks in which you did not file a claim.

How much money will you receive for unemployment insurance?

The amount of money you receive for your weekly unemployment benefit will vary depending on your earning history and the limits of your state. When I filed for unemployment benefits in Texas I received $300 per week, however, some states offer more (the national average is $300 per week).

Unemployment benefits are taxable. Pay attention to the income tax question! Unemployment benefits are considered taxable income for federal income taxes. Taxes are not automatically taken out of your check, so if you want to avoid an unexpected surprise when you file taxes the following year, it may be a good idea to have taxes taken out when you receive your benefits. If you choose to have taxes withdrawn, the IRS will automatically withdraw 10% of your unemployment benefits.

Receiving unemployment benefits

File weekly claims. Most states require people receiving unemployment benefits to file a weekly claim with their state. This means you need to call in and verify that your status has not changed. You can expect to go through an automated phone system that asks whether you are still physically able to perform work, if you are actively seeking work, if you earned any income in the previous week, and if anything about your situation has changed.

Get paid weekly or biweekly. Each state determines how often they pay unemployment benefit recipients, but it payment is usually weekly or biweekly. Be sure to check with your state’s unemployment board.

Keep accurate records! States require that you maintain a job search while receiving unemployment benefits, and your need to keep records verifying that you are searching for work – you must generally make 3 job searches per week, by either contacting employers, submitting resumes, or going to interviews. Tracking your job search efforts includes maintaining a list of jobs applied for or applications submitted. Many states give you a Job Search Log to make tracking easier. Make sure you keep accurate records because they can audit you later and you can lose your benefits if they discover you are not actively seeking new work.

Report any earnings. You can still take on work while receiving unemployment benefits, but you must report it and your earnings will reduce the amount of benefits you receive. Still it is better to earn some money through part time work than to do nothing at all. If you fail to report any earnings, you will have to pay back any benefits you received, plus interest. If you knowingly fail to report earnings, you may be charged with fraud, which can result in a denial of benefits and additional penalties.

Receive benefits by check or direct deposit. Most states offer both options for receiving unemployment benefits. I recommend receiving your unemployment benefits by direct deposit if you have a bank account – that way you do not have to pay check cashing fees or wait for the mail, which can be unpredictable. Direct deposit means you will receive your benefits more quickly. If you need access to a good online bank, I recommend Capital One 360 or another free high interest savings account that offers easy access.

How long can you claim unemployment benefits?

Time limits of unemployment benefits. The length of time that benefits are available is determined by the State in which you file an unemployment insurance claim. Benefits can be paid for a maximum of 26 weeks in most states, however, due to the current global economic crisis and mass layoffs in the United States, the US government and many states recently approved emergency unemployment compensation (EUC), which extended unemployment benefits for certain individuals.

Unemployment Insurance Extended Benefits. The basic Extended Benefits program provides up to 13 additional weeks of benefits when a State is experiencing high unemployment (usually over 6%, but check with your state). Some States have also enacted a voluntary program to pay up to 7 additional weeks (20 weeks maximum) of Extended Benefits during periods of extremely high unemployment. Not everyone who qualified for regular benefits qualifies for Extended Benefits. The State agency will advise you of your eligibility for Extended Benefits.

Other possible benefits

Along with unemployment benefits, you may be eligible to claim COBRA insurance coverage through your former employer. Be sure to contact your former employer or health insurance provider for more details.

Unemployment Benefit Provisions in the 2009 Economic Stimulus Plan

Update: The 2009 economic stimulus plan calls for an increase in unemployment and COBRA benefits. Be sure to visit this article for more information about increases in benefits you may be eligible to receive. Also keep in mind that some of these updates are temporary, and may not be permanently written into law. Be sure to verify how long you will be eligible to receive benefits with your state jobs board.

Unemployment Benefits are there for you

Losing your job is a difficult experience, but thankfully we have unemployment insurance to fall back on. With a positive attitude and a little luck, hopefully you won’t need to claim unemployment very long.

Published or updated January 6, 2017.
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1 Job

Thanks for posting this. I read the other day that 1.9 million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the recession, and I believe that is just the tip of the iceberg.

2 Funny about Money

The way I understood the information posted online, in my state if you receive any money AT ALL during a week in which you’re otherwise eligible for unemployment, you’re disqualified. That means if you earn anything that’s not paid to you in cash, under the table, you lose your unemployment benefit. And they specifically state that if your ex-employer pays you, say, your back vacation pay in a check that comes after your last paycheck (which my employer notoriously does), you’re disqualified for unemployment in that week, too. Ducky, since in my case my back vacation pay will have to be used to cover COBRA.

One thing I couldn’t figure out is whether receiving Social Security, which you couldn’t even begin to live on, would also disqualify you from drawing unemployment.

Frankly, the hassle factor involved in obtaining this so-called benefit, a substantial part of which you will lose to taxes (especially if you’re laid off near the end of the year and so are in the 28% bracket), makes it look like it’s not worth the trouble. For the piddling amount that you get (in my state, well under $300 a week!), you’d be better off spending the time doing freelance work and flipping burgers while you look for a new job.

3 Ryan

Funny About Money: Thanks for the additional info. Each state has slightly different requirements, so this article is just a general summation. It does seem like your state is a little more strict than others. I Wish you the best in finding a suitable job soon! 🙂

4 PC

I have a question–I am receiving unemployment compensation–but due to my daughters upcoming surgery–I had to withdraw all of my money out to pay for it–will I have to report it to the unemployment people. Will I still get to sign upand receive unemployment even though I got this money out?

5 Ryan

PC: I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s surgery and wish her the best in her recovery.

Withdrawing personal funds should not affect your unemployment benefits. Your unemployment benefits will only be affected if you earn money from another source – such as employment, selling vacation days from your old position, a severance package, or similar income.

Just be sure to continue looking for work and filling out your unemployment benefits paperwork as you normally should. If you have further questions or need anything else clarified, please contact your state unemployment office for more details. They will be able to give you official answers.

Best of luck to you and your daughter.

6 konsai

i have a question. I live in california and currently, i’m receiving the first-round of federal extended benefits. I have an emergency which i need to leave the U.S for 2 or 3 months. I know people are allowed to leave the country and still receiving benefit when they get back. Just have to notify the U.I department. However, does anyone know HOW LONG i can stay out of the U.S without getting disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit once i get back. Another word, is there a limit time frame that I must return to the U.S to continue to receive the rest of my benefit. Thanks for ur comments.

7 Ryan

Konsai: I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for you. You will need to contact your state unemployment office for more information. Best of luck to you and I hope your situation ends well.

8 sue hennessey

Is there a statue of limitation on filing for unemployment? For example I left my company due to job elimination but my severance states they will not fight unemployment. That was late 2005. I now find that the severance is over and i still do not have a job. I am in Ohio. They were my base employer from 1999 to 2006. I worked in a self employed situation after making very little money since. Can I file with that employer>>>

9 Ryan

Sue: I think there is a time limit, but am not positive. You will need to contact the OH employment bureau for more information.

Best of luck.

10 Dina Figgs

how can i verify the address my check was mailed to

11 greg

I’m receiving ui benefits can i withdraw from my 401 k and will I be penalize?

12 Emonie Johnson

Question? I got approved for unemployment from the state of California. I was receiving checks for a total of 3 weeks and this fourth week I have not received anything. I called the system every thursday that’s when it seems to be updated. But it keep saying that ” Your last check was paid on April 9 for the week ending on April 4. Therefore if I was getting a check it would have said that your check has been issued for the week of April 16 but it’s not saying that. It is so hard to talk with someone. Does this mean that I will not be receiving anymore unemployment checks.


13 Ryan

Emonie: You need to contact your state employment buraeu for specific information.

14 Bobby

I left my job beause of harrasment by other emploees where I worked. I was denied unemployment by N.Y. State where I live. I requested a hearing and at the hearing even though the employer admitted to the harassment I was still denied unemployment insurance. Now Im in a real bind, with no income at all going on my 3 month my saving is almost gone and there are no jobs at all. Anyone know what I can do?

15 Ryan

Bobby: If your unemployment claim was denied, then you may be able to look into an appeal, but I do not know how that process works. Short of that, you will need to find a job. Best of luck to you.

16 ginny

my husband has been laid off from his job off and on since Thanksgiving, for a while he kept getting what we called “false starts” they would call him back for a week, then lay him off, call him back for 2 week and lay him off. our question is
Does the time allowed to recieve unemployment benifits start over evertime he got called back and laid off?

17 Ryan

Ginny: I have no idea; I would recommend contacting your state employment bureau. Best of luck, and I hope your husband is able to find full-time work soon.

18 Candice

I filed for unemployment in the state of ohio 3 weeks ago. Can anyone tell me how long it takes before i will start to recieve checks? on the website it shows a paystub for each week but they all say pending. Can anyone help me?

19 Ryan

Candace: You will need to contact the state of Ohio for more information.

20 Matt

My question involves unemployment and how I will file my unemployment earnings with my tax return for 2009.

I am in Michigan and have been receiving unemployment all year. From January 1st to May 2nd I had no taxes withheld (17.5 weeks) and I recently (May 3rd – May 16) changed my option to have taxes withheld (2 weeks) so that I don’t end up owing a bunch at the end of the year. Early in the year, though, I needed all that $ just to pay the bills but now am w/ my parents so I’ve got a lot less payments to worry about.

When I file my taxes for 2009 how will I differentiate between receiving unemployment for the 17.5 weeks tax-free and the 2 weeks+ that I did have taxes withheld? Also, I understand the first $2,400 earned for 2009 is tax-free (thanks Barack) so how will this factor in as well?


21 Ryan

Matt: I’m really not qualified to give you an answer to this question. My recommendation is to keep good records of everything regarding your unemployment so your taxes will be easier next year. If you have questions at that time (or even now), then I recommend visiting a CPA.

22 Michele

I applied for unemployment in October in 2008. I found a new job 9 (0ff the books) within a few weeks and never received a check for the weeks I didn’t work. Now I am unemployed again due to no fault of mine. I work in construction and the building the company was working on, failed inspections and we do not know when we will go back to work. I called and the unemployment file from 08 was still open. I called to claim benefits. The information was taken and I was told to file again the following Sunday. Done. Will I get benefits under the old claim?

23 Ryan

Michele: You will need to contact your state unemployment bureau for specific information. Best of luck.

24 Lorri

Here is my dilemma- My husband was unemployed in April of 2008 for a job in May 2008. He was suppose to start his new job on May 27th which was Memorial Day. His new place of employers realized this and when we got home on Friday (after mailing in his ui paperwork saying he DID not work the week prior) they asked him to come in on the Saturday before Memorial so that he could start training and have Memorial day off since they were closed! He did go in to work the Saturday prior to Memorial. We received a bill from UI stating that he worked during the time he said he did not so we paid back the money, and also a fine.

Now he again was laid off by the above mentioned job April 2009, He filed for UI May 1, 2009 by internet and heard nothing. He has called numerous times and gets no one on the phone so we started corresponding through e-mail with them. He asked where our check was and they said that because in 2008 even though he paid his fines, and penalties that he also needed to appeal it. (which we do no remember any such paperwork) but we have been DISQUALIFIED for an additional 5 weeks due to his Fraudulent activity, even though he paid everything back.

My question is how can this be legal? If he did something fradulently shouldnt he be criminally charged? He actually did nothing worng besides going back to work 1 day earlier then he should have. (Sounds criminal to me, someone just going back to work and not taking money from ui)

25 Ryan

Lorri, I don’t have an answer for you. Your best bet is to contact an attorney who specializes in labor law or works with these types of cases.

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