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Unemployment Benefits - Understanding Who is Eligible and How to File a Claim

Being laid off from your job can be a stressful life event. Your daily routine is disrupted, you may suffer damage to your self-esteem, and your income is cut. You've got to find a new job while continuing to pay your customary household bills. In the worst-case scenario you could lose your home and be forced into bankruptcy.

Fortunately, in the United States we have an economic safety net designed to cushion the impact of job loss. Unemployment insurance is a cash payment system that is funded and administered jointly by each state (and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) and the federal government.

Who is eligible for unemployment benefits?

If you have been laid off from your job, you should immediately check with your state's Division of Unemployment Assistance to determine your eligibility. But in general, to qualify you need to meet these criteria:

  • You need to have been separated from your job through no fault of your own. If you quit your job voluntarily, you may not be eligible
  • You are mentally and physically able to work
  • You are looking for a job and willing to accept work
  • You have not been able to find another job in your field of work or something similar
  • You earned a specified amount of money at your job during a recent one-year period; this is called your "base period"
  • If you have received severance pay upon your separation from work, you may still be eligible for unemployment benefits
  • If your hours or earnings were cut back by at least one third, you can usually get a partial benefit. The greater the cutback, the higher your benefit

The most important thing to remember is that even if you believe that you may not be eligible, file a claim anyway. There is no harm in asking, and your state's unemployment office will have valuable resources that can help you find another job.

How do I apply for unemployment benefits?

If you have been separated from work, you should file your initial claim during your first week of total or partial unemployment. But if you have for some reason waited to apply, don't give up. File a claim.

You can generally apply with a phone call. You'll probably be asked to enter your Social Security number and year of birth, using the numbers on your telephone. You may also be able to file a claim at a local state unemployment office walk-in center. Another convenient option is to file for unemployment online.

What information do I need?

When you file your claim, you'll need:

  • Your phone number and address
  • Your social Security number
  • The year you were born
  • Your last date of employment
  • The names and addresses of the employers you have worked for recently, and the dates you worked for them
  • The reason you lost your job or your hours were cut back
  • If you are not a U.S. citizen, your alien registration number
  • Whether you have filed an unemployment claim in your state or another state during the past year
  • If you are claiming the dependency allowance, the names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers of your dependent children
How much money can I get?

If you are eligible, you may be entitled to up to half of your weekly paycheck up to a certain limit.

How long will my benefits last?

Currently, state benefits end after an average of 30 weeks. During periods of economic hardship, the federal government can extend the benefit period. Check with your state Unemployment Division for the most current laws, and review our article how long can you collect unemployment.