The unemployment benefits program, or unemployment insurance (UI), is a joint effort provided by the federal government and individual states to temporarily support jobless workers as they look for employment. According to the Brookings Institute, recipients typically receive an amount equal to half of their previous earnings for up to 26 weeks, though this duration varies from state to state.
If you have lost your job during the coronavirus pandemic, these payments can be an essential lifeline to support yourself or your household. Here’s how to get as much benefit out of this government program as possible
1. Determine If You Qualify
Because each state has its own criteria for unemployment eligibility, the process may not be the same for everyone. But generally, you should be eligible if you are laid off or furloughed, notes National Employment Law Project (NELP) senior policy analyst Michele Evermore — though there are exceptions.
For example, immigrants must fulfill specific immigration status guidelines to qualify, and long-term unemployed individuals (those who have not worked for 12 months or more) who have used their benefits may not be eligible, either.
Additionally, employers manage layoffs individually, which can affect your benefits eligibility. For example, a laid-off worker who receives severance either won’t qualify for UI or will only be eligible for smaller payments, versus a laid-off worker who didn’t receive severance.
According to Douglas Holmes, the president of Strategic Services on Unemployment & Workers’ Compensation, receiving payouts for vacation or sick leave after losing your job can also impact your eligibility. Social Security recipients can still qualify for UI, although employer-sponsored retirement benefits such as pensions can be reduced.
People who supplemented their wages with outside revenue sources like side gigs may also receive less money if they qualify. Or, if you weren’t laid off, but your employer drastically reduced your hours, you may still be eligible for UI benefits. Several employers do this by using federal work-share programs.
Even if you find new employment, you might still qualify for unemployment benefits if your new wages are less than what you earned with your previous employer. Evermore says individuals in this situation can receive a percentage of their weekly benefit payments — usually about 45% of their previous wages.
If you lose your job, filing for unemployment as soon as you can is crucial. Unemployment is stressful, but shortening the gap between your last paycheck and your first UI check can provide some peace of mind.
When you begin the application process, make sure you understand your state’s rules and collect everything you will need in advance. You can find a list of the necessary documents on your state’s unemployment office website. These materials include:
- Two forms of valid ID
- The address of each employer you’ve worked for in the last 18 months
- Pay stubs or similar proof of payment
Your state may not require W2s, but having them on hand can help you in case you receive fewer benefits than you are eligible for or if the government rejects your application completely.
Evermore notes that having everything you need before starting (especially if you are filing a claim online) will make everything much more manageable, particularly since these sites can unexpectedly time out in the middle of the process.
When you log on and make an account, make sure you record your UI portal password. Evermore says that changing this password is very difficult; you might have to deal with a long phone queue to speak to a representative or wait for the unemployment office to send you a new password in the mail.
After you apply, you will need to be patient since many states have a mandatory one-week waiting period. Then, when you are considered eligible, you will have to wait one more week for the funds to deposit in your bank account or arrive in the mail, according to Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality co-executive director Indivar Dutta-Gupta.
However, the massive number of unemployed applicants seeking aid during the pandemic may mean a longer wait. In the spring and early summer, state websites crashed, and phone lines were jammed due to the enormous call volume.
In the past, recipients were required to prove every week or two that they could work and were actively looking for employment. Since the pandemic, the federal government told states to lift both the “waiting week” and “work search requirements,” but states can still decide whether to waive these guidelines. Missouri, for example, is just one state which has already restored them.
Even if you live in a state that does not require proof that you are looking for work, you should still record any communication with prospective employers or unemployment office staff. Depending on which state you live in, you may not qualify for UI if you require childcare to work. So, Dutta-Gupta notes, your attempts to find childcare can count as evidence.
Use a document or spreadsheet to record your job hunting efforts, including names and contact details, in the event you need to present these records to continue receiving benefits.
- Mitra, Mallika. “How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits – and Get as Much Money as Possible.” Money, 26 Oct. 2020, money.com/unemployment-benefits-frequently-asked-questions/.