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How Can I File for Unemployment Benefits?

Reading time: 3 minutes

If you have recently lost a job, the financial impact can be extremely stressful. How will you cover your expenses while you search for a new job? Hopefully, you've planned well and have an emergency fund with enough cash to cover a few months of expenses.

You may also be eligible for government benefits to help you make ends meet while on the job hunt, until you find your next job. Here's how it works:

What are unemployment benefits?

Unemployment benefits (also called unemployment insurance and unemployment compensation) are a form of government assistance usually available to people who have lost a job through no fault of their own. To receive these benefits, you must file a weekly or biweekly certification (depending on where you live) with your state to prove that you meet certain eligibility requirements. Approved individuals will receive a percentage of their previous salary (up to a maximum amount) to help cover basic living expenses.

Here's what you need to do to take advantage of the benefits:

  • Make sure you're eligible. Generally, you would be eligible to collect unemployment if you:
    • Lost your job through no fault of your own. This could mean, for example, that you were laid off because your job was eliminated in a company restructuring. You will usually not qualify if you were fired due to poor performance or if you left on your own, although there are a few exceptions. For example, you may still qualify for unemployment benefits if you were forced to quit because of a hostile work environment or because you became disabled.
    • Meet your state's “base-period” requirements, which means you were employed for a certain amount of time before being let go.
  • Contact your state's unemployment insurance office as soon as possible after you become unemployed. It can take time to go through the process of filing your claim, and some states have a waiting period before you can receive your first check, so it pays to start immediately.
  • Fill out the application. You will need to provide contact information for your former employer, who will be asked to verify the length of your employment and why you lost your job. You'll also have to provide your Social Security number, driver's license or state ID number and other personal information.
  • File weekly or biweekly certifications. Once you've been approved to receive unemployment benefits, you will need to file a certification once a week or every other week stating that you've looked for work, have been unable to find a job and are still unemployed.

Unemployment programs vary by state but will typically provide support for around 26 weeks during a one-year period. You may be able to apply for extended benefits under certain circumstances (such as during the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic). Unemployment benefits are subject to federal income taxes and will need to be accounted for when you file your federal tax return.

There's sometimes a stigma around unemployment benefits and similar forms of government assistance, but don't let this discourage you from seeking the support you need. Accepting government assistance does not mean you're lazy or unmotivated; it just means you need a little help for now. Unemployment insurance is not a permanent solution to job loss and not every individual who loses a job will be eligible. However, if you do qualify, consider taking advantage of the benefits available to you.

You can find more information on the unemployment benefits relevant to your state from the U.S. Department of Labor.

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