For millions of Americans, unemployment benefits provide a lifeline that lets them keep the wolf from the door. But collecting those benefits isn’t always simple. Unemployment claims are often denied, and sometimes for avoidable reasons.
But first, let’s answer some basic questions you might have.
What Are Unemployment Benefits?
Americans who find themselves without a job may qualify for help from the government. Officially called the Federal-State Unemployment Insurance Program, these benefits can provide you temporary income while you’re unemployed and looking for work.
Do I Qualify for Unemployment Benefits?
You must meet two essential criteria to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, according to the US Department of Labor:
1. You lost your job for a reason that wasn’t your fault.
2. You meet your state’s unemployment insurance rules, including requirements about the time you previously worked or the wages you earned.
How Do Unemployment Benefits Differ in Different States?
Your state determines what unemployment benefits you are eligible for, how much assistance you can receive, and how long you can receive these benefits. Check the bottom of this page to find how to start the application process in your state.
How Do I Get Unemployment Benefits?
Because the rules for unemployment insurance are strict, it’s important that you understand what’s required of you to apply for benefits.
We spoke with Spencer Cohn, national employee representative and author of Beat the Boss: Win in the Workplace. He specializes in helping workers collect rightful unemployment benefits. We asked him to share tips for collecting unemployment benefits, and he gave us a lot of them. Here are the highlights::
Tip #1: File for Unemployment Benefits
Cohn told us the most common reason people aren’t able to collect unemployment is that they don’t file for benefits. They often don’t file because they think they will go back to work soon. “That’s the biggest mistake because that’s another week that you don’t get unemployment,” he said.
Another reason they don’t file is they assume they aren’t entitled to benefits. “People think that if I quit my job, I can’t collect unemployment. That’s not true. If you have good cause and you tried to preserve your job before you quit, then you are entitled to your unemployment,” said Cohn. For example, you may refuse to work because you think your working conditions aren’t safe. If you document the problem with your supervisor and the employer refuses to correct the issue, you may still be able to quit and be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Tip #2: Read and Respond to Your Unemployment Notice of Determination
Once you file for unemployment compensation, an adjudicator will review your case. That person decides whether you are entitled to your unemployment benefits or not. You’ll then receive a Notice of Determination explaining whether you are eligible for benefits or your claim has been denied.
Sounds simple enough, right? We challenge you to read one of these notices. Apparently, bewilderment is not an uncommon response. But many people just throw the notice in the mail pile to figure out later. Big mistake.
The Notice of Determination typically states whether the employer is “chargeable” for your claim or “not chargeable.” If the adjudicator determines the employer was not chargeable (which essentially means you aren’t getting an unemployment check), you have to request an appeal within a very specific period of time—20 calendar days in Florida, for example. If you appeal, you’ll have to attend a hearing to determine your eligibility.
When you get your Notice of Determination, read it carefully. If you aren’t absolutely certain you understand it, get help. Don’t assume you aren’t eligible for benefits. If you don’t file an appeal by the deadline, warned Cohn, the state will deny your benefits, and you’ll have a difficult time reopening the claim.
Unemployment claims are denied for many reasons but the most common are the following:
1. The employee committed misconduct.
2. The employee quit a job without good cause.
But even if these are the case, the situation isn’t always clear-cut.
Say you were fired for violating a company policy. Your employer may not give you any strikes and may fire you on the spot. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. Your state unemployment department’s appeals office may find there was good cause to separate you from employment but that it wasn’t sufficient to deny you unemployment benefits. What’s more, these policy violations typically have to occur at the workplace. If the violations aren’t directly related to work, they generally can’t be a reason to deny benefits.
Or perhaps you were fired for absenteeism. If you were late or couldn’t get to work for a compelling reason (traffic, illness, or a major snowstorm, for example), you could still collect unemployment provided you called and let your employer know about the problem and explained that it was beyond your control.
If your employer does write you up for a violation, “don’t refuse to sign it, or you can be fired for insubordination,” advised Cohn. “What you should do is sign it, explain on that document why you disagree, and then indicate that you are not finished or that your explanation is not complete.” Insist on a copy for your records.
Tip #3: Fight for Your Unemployment Benefits
If your unemployment claim does go to a hearing, your case will be assigned to an administrative law judge (often known as a Referee)—and it can get ugly. Your employer has plenty of incentive to challenge your claim. If you are successful, the employer’s unemployment insurance tax rate will go up, often significantly. And don’t forget that state unemployment funds are usually strained, which may result in state workers looking for reasons to deny claims.
Cohn recommended claimants get help preparing for their appeal. “The employer comes in with witnesses (who likely still work for the employer), an HR person, maybe even an attorney,” he cautioned. You’ll be outgunned.
The most surprising advice we heard from Cohn? File for unemployment while you’re still working if possible. Why? Because many workers employed through leasing or staffing companies may not realize they work for another company. And your eligibility for unemployment depends on a number of factors, including how long you worked, how much you were paid, and what state you live in. So it’s best to play it safe and file once you receive notice of separation.
“If they separate from employment, they have to notify the staffing company within 48 hours or they lose their unemployment benefits,” warned Cohen, who also added: “The deck is stacked against the employee, no question about it.”
If you’re concerned about your credit while you’re unemployed, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. If you’d like to monitor your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card provides you with an easy-to-understand breakdown of the information in your credit report using letter grades, along with two free credit scores that are updated every 14 days.
If you’re ready to apply for benefits, check the table below for your state’s or region’s unemployment insurance website to get started.