If the coronavirus or some other situation has put you out of work, you’re probably wondering how to collect unemployment benefits.
Keep in mind that while states often handle unemployment benefits in the same way, there are sometimes differences in how they determine eligibility. So make sure to look up how your state handles unemployment due to the coronavirus.
What Are Unemployment Benefits?
This is money people receive for a certain amount of time — usually 26 weeks — until they are employed again. It’s strictly a paycheck; unemployment benefits shouldn’t be confused with, say, health benefits. The money is also often not the amount you were receiving when you were working. It may be half of your paycheck.
You might sometimes hear unemployment benefits referred to as unemployment insurance. Those terms are interchangeable.
[See: The 25 Best Jobs of 2021.]
Who Is Eligible for Unemployment Benefits?
If you had a full-time or part-time job, and now you don’t, you should be eligible for unemployment benefits. However, there is a lot of gray area in the world of losing a position.
Much of it depends on how you and your job parted ways. Were you laid off? Did you quit? Were you fired? How you answer may affect whether you are eligible.
You were terminated. Can you get unemployment if you are fired? Yes, but not always. If you were fired because you weren’t meeting expectations — because the job was a bad fit — you’ll probably be able to receive unemployment benefits. If you didn’t meet expectations because you stole money from the company’s petty cash fund, you’re probably not going to see an unemployment check.
You quit your job. Usually, you can’t get an unemployment check if you quit. But if you can prove the job was untenable — maybe your employer wanted you to work in an unsafe environment, and so you had to quit — your state may provide you with unemployment benefits.
You were laid off due to downsizing. In this scenario, you shouldn’t have a problem getting unemployment benefits. Generally, you get compensated when you lose a job through no fault of your own.
This goes for anyone. Renata Castro, an immigration attorney who is the managing partner at the Castro Legal Group in Pompano Beach, Florida, says, “Unemployment benefits are earned benefits, and even at times of concern over public charge, immigrants are eligible — including those with DACA — to collect unemployment benefits.”
How Can I Collect Unemployment?
Here is a course of action for collecting unemployment, broken into steps:
1. Don’t wait to collect unemployment benefits. If you lost your job, do it now. Even if you have severance pay, assuming your state allows it, you should collect the money, says Jerry Kardas, a human resources consultant with KardasLarson, a human resources consultancy headquartered in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
“Many states, such as Connecticut, allow unemployed individuals to file a claim for unemployment insurance payments while they may also be collecting any severance payments from their former company,” Kardas says. “I often advise people to file for unemployment as soon as they can, rather than wait until the severance payments run out. It is a benefit available to impacted people, so take advantage of it.”
2. Start gathering documents. Typically, you will need to know or have:
— Your Social Security number.
— Your driver’s license (your state will want the driver’s license number).
— Information on your employer, usually for the past year and a half. That would include the company’s name, address, phone number and probably the name of your boss or supervisor.
— The Federal Employer Identification Number, sometimes called the employer registration number, from your most recent employer (you can find the FEIN on your W-2 form).
— Possibly a pay stub or some documentation showing how much you were paid.
3. Go to your state’s unemployment website. You can do that by searching online, or go to CareerOneStop.org, a website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. You will be able to find your state’s unemployment website. This site has good information about unemployment benefits and a map that you can click and quickly find your state’s website.
If filing an application online doesn’t appeal to you, look for the phone number on the website; you’ll likely be able to apply over the phone. Often, you can apply in person, but you should call and make sure the office is accepting visitors before you do that. You’ll probably get it done a lot faster if you apply online.
“Be sure to follow all instructions and fill out all parts of the claim form, usually done online, fully and honestly,” Kardas says.
In other words, don’t exaggerate how much you were paid or how long you worked at a company.
“There can be severe consequences for lying on a claim,” Kardas says.
4. Wait for your money. According to the Department of Labor website, “It generally takes two to three weeks after you file your claim to receive your first benefit check.” All the more reason to get started on your application now.
Depending on your state, you may be able to get your money in the form of a debit card or direct deposit and certainly the old-fashioned way — a check in the mail.
While you’re waiting, you’d do well to learn the ins and outs of collecting unemployment benefits. For instance, Kardas says, you’ll need to file weekly claims — and you want to do it on time.
“If you are late by a day or two, you might make it difficult for yourself to continue to file claims without a lot of hassle and unnecessary interaction with the people who administer the unemployment insurance program in your state,” he says.
Extending Unemployment Benefits
The American Rescue Plan was signed into law on March 11, 2021, extending expanded unemployment benefits through Sept. 6, 2021.
So if you’re unemployed and receiving those benefits, you’ll receive $300 extra a week in compensation.
If your income in 2020 was a mix of a W-2 and 1099s — maybe you’re a bartender who serves up drinks during the workweek and performs with a band on the weekends — you may be entitled to an extra $100 a week up until Sept. 6, on top of the $300, through what’s called the Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation. Your state has to opt in, so you’ll want to check in with your state. Why do you get that extra $100? It’s to make up for the fact that a full-time entertainer can receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, whereas somebody who is a “mixed earner” is not eligible.
Disqualifications for Unemployment Benefits
If you don’t want to be disqualified from unemployment benefits, follow the rules issued by your state. In theory, it shouldn’t be harder than that.
But if you want more specific tips, you’d do well to follow advice from Brenda Neckvatal, who owns Best Practices, a human resources consultancy in Fort Monroe, Virginia.
— Make sure the information you provide to the unemployment office is accurate. For instance, your dates of employment. “If your dates do not match the employer’s records, which are submitted for tax and other legal requirements, it creates confusion, delays and possibly a dismissal for your claim,” Neckvatal says.
— Be honest about the facts. “Don’t over elaborate to win your case,” Neckvatal advises. “Employers keep copies of disciplinary documents, performance reviews and additional notes for more egregious violations. False claims get dismissed, especially if you are unable to support your position.”
— Show up to a hearing. Don’t worry. Most people aren’t going to have to go to an unemployment hearing, but sometimes, employers will feel that they don’t need to pay out unemployment insurance, and so they’ll appeal. “If you are called to testify during the review process, be sure to show up,” Neckvatal says. “If you don’t, your claim will likely be denied, and the message it sends to the workforce commission is your claim wasn’t important enough for you to appear.”
The bottom line: Collecting unemployment benefits is a lot like staying on a path in the woods. If you stay on the trail, everything should go fine, and you’ll get through the forest with no problems. If you wander off and start to improvise, that’s when you might get into trouble.
More from U.S. News
Update 04/21/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.