Unemployment benefits are available for workers who have become unemployed through no fault of their own and are seeking a new job. Unemployment assistance varies by state, but the guidelines are usually very similar.
How Unemployment Benefits Work
Unemployment Insurance is a state and federal program that offers cash benefits to eligible workers who are out of a job through no fault of their own. Unemployment Insurance benefits are designed to give you temporary financial help while you find a new job. The Unemployment Insurance program is funded by taxes paid by employers in the United States with no contributions made by workers.
Meeting Eligibility Requirements for Unemployment
Before filing a claim for unemployment assistance, you need to make sure you qualify. There are two basic qualifications for unemployment:
- Unemployed through no fault of your own. This means that you are unable to work for reasons you cannot control, such as being laid off. If you voluntarily quit your job or get fired for gross misconduct, you cannot collect unemployment. You may still be eligible if you voluntarily left your job for "good cause," which will be determined by your state's Unemployment Office.
- Meet state requirements for wages earned and/or time worked. Every state has their own requirements for how long a worker must work with an employer or the minimum amount of wages they must earn to become eligible for unemployment benefits.
For many people, the minimum wages earned or time worked requirement can be confusing. Most states look at a "base period" of one year to determine eligibility. This refers to the earliest 4 of the last 5 complete quarters of a calendar year. Depending on when you file, however, this base period may not include nearly 6 months of work, but states usually have exceptions for workers who didn't have enough hours or wages during their base period.
An earnings requirement during the base period may also be required in addition to or instead of the work requirement. There are two common ways to determine the minimum earnings necessary to qualify: a flat dollar amount (such as $1,600 in New York) or high quarter wages, which requires that you earned a minimum amount during the highest paid quarter of your base period.
Before filing a claim for unemployment, you must also be actively looking for work. Returning to school full-time will not make you eligible for unemployment because you are not searching for a job except in some states like Oregon and Washington, which allow you to receive extra weeks of unemployment without seeking a job if you are completing training in a high-demand field and are making progress in a program.
You will also need to have been working fairly recently to be eligible for benefits.
How to File an Unemployment Claim
Filing a claim for unemployment benefits varies by state, but it is typically done through your state's Department of Labor. Many states today require that you file for unemployment benefits online, although many still offer alternatives such as in-person filing and phone claims.
To file a claim, you will typically need your Social Security number (or Alien Registration Card if you are not a U.S. citizen); mailing address; phone number; and the names, addresses, and dates of employment over the last 2 years.
The claims process usually proceeds as follows:
- 1. File a claim for unemployment insurance benefits online, by phone, or with a paper application.
- 2. A Department representative files your claim and you receive documents in the mail.
- 3. The Department decides if you are eligible to collect benefits. This may require phone interviews with you and/or your employer and a review of statements you submit.
- 4. When a decision is made, you will receive a notice in the mail.
- 5. If approved, you must continually certify your eligibility for benefits for each week benefits are claimed.
After filing a claim, you will need to certify your eligibility for every week you are claiming benefits and submitting evidence of your job search for every week. Actively seeking a job is one of the most important steps to remain eligible for benefits.