Update: As of Labor Day weekend, pandemic unemployment benefits have officially ended. Right now, it looks like Congress has no plans to extend federal unemployment aid.
For millions of Americans, unemployment benefits provide a lifeline during a difficult time. But collecting those benefits isn’t always simple. Unemployment claims are often denied, sometimes for avoidable reasons. Find out more how to increase the chance you get those needed benefits.
What Are Unemployment Benefits?
Americans who find themselves without a job may qualify for financial 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. This can help you manage your finances while unemployed.
Eligibility and benefits vary by state. In most states, funding is acquired through a tax imposed on employers—though a few states require employee contributions as well.
Do I Qualify for Unemployment Benefits?
In general, you must meet two essential criteria to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, according to the US Department of Labor:
- You lost your job for a reason that wasn’t your fault.
- You meet your state’s unemployment insurance rules, including requirements about the time you worked or the wages you earned.
You also need to be actively looking for work while on unemployment. You’ll likely be required to file weekly or biweekly claims and answer some questions about your continued eligibility.
In times of great need, like the recent COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment benefit criteria may change. The US Department of Labor recently announced guidelines allowing for unemployment insurance flexibility during the COVID-19 outbreak, based on the CARES Act. Federal law now allows states to pay benefits where employers temporarily cease operations or where an individual has been quarantined or leaves employment due to a risk of exposure, for example.
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: PUA extends benefits to self-employed individuals, independent contractors and freelancers—all of whom do not generally qualify for unemployment benefits.
- Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation: FPUC provides an additional $600 per week for those who qualify.
- Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation: PEUC extends benefits for an extra 13 weeks.
- Short-Time Compensation: Employees whose hours have been reduced can receive partial unemployment benefit payments.
- Waiting Week Waiver: Many states require a waiting week after unemployment before benefits begin. States have been encouraged to waive this weeklong waiting period.
- Work Search Requirements: Work search requirements have also been waived by many states.
These additional assistance programs are up to the discretion of your state. Review your state’s specific guidelines below for more information.
How Do Unemployment Benefits Differ Between 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.
Note that Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands currently qualify for the unemployment insurance program. Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands do not.
How to 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. It’s also important that you know how to position your case and what to say when you talk to unemployment. Here are some tips for increasing your chances at receiving benefits.
Before You Quit
Planning to quit and get unemployment benefits? Tread carefully. Unemployment is generally intended for individuals who unexpectedly lose their job. However, if you quit for “good cause,” you may still qualify. Each state determines what qualifies as “good cause,” though, so make sure you understand your state’s guidelines before you resign. Good cause may include unsafe work conditions, harassment or discrimination, or medical reasons.
The key to successfully filing for unemployment in cases where you quit is documentation. Start recording your complaints and your employer’s response early on. It’s your employer’s lack of appropriate action that might make or break your case for unemployment benefits.
If you submit a formal letter of resignation, be careful. You might want to include just the date of resignation to avoid having to justify quitting when you claimed you “had a great experience” on your letter of resignation, when you were just trying to be polite.
1. File for Unemployment Benefits
To get unemployment, you have to apply for it. Many people don’t bother because they think they’ll get right back to work somewhere else. But you could be receiving benefits you’re entitled to while you’re on the job search. Since unemployment can impact your finances for years, this proactive step can help you stay ahead of things and avoid future money struggles.
Another reason people don’t file is that they assume they aren’t entitled to benefits. This is usually the case if someone quit their job or were fired, but in some cases, you can still qualify for benefits. If you felt you had no choice but to quit because your employer had repeatedly failed to address serious safety concerns, for example, you might be able to file for unemployment.
Each state has its own application process, so check the bottom of this page to find your state and begin.
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’re entitled to your unemployment benefits or not. You’ll receive a Notice of Determination explaining whether you’re eligible for benefits or your claim has been denied.
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, you have to request an appeal within a very specific period of time. 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, the state will deny your benefits and you may have a difficult time reopening the claim.
Unemployment claims are denied for many reasons. Some common reasons include:
- Work-related misconduct that was documented by the employer through various discipline steps as outlined in the company’s employee manual.
- Quitting your job without good cause.
- Failing a drug test either as the reason you were fired or while you are on unemployment and seeking new work.
3. Fight for Your Rights
If your unemployment claim does go to a hearing, your case will be assigned to an administrative law judge. Your employer has plenty of incentive to challenge your claim. If you’re 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 as well.
It can be a good idea to get help in making your claim at this point. Your employer will have help: An experienced human resources person, witnesses such as managers or supervisors, and even an attorney might be attending on behalf of your employer.
Whether you have assistance or are going it alone, here are some things to do to help make your case for unemployment:
- Demonstrate that the employer was unfair via documentation you have of complaints that went unanswered or a string of unfair treatment.
- Say—and demonstrate—that the employer did not follow its own procedures when disciplining or firing you.
- Show how you were treated differently than other employees under the same circumstances, especially if you were fired and they were not.
Apply for Unemployment Benefits
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.
|State or Region
|Start Here for Unemployment Benefits
District of Columbia
|Ohio Department of Job and Family Services
|US Virgin Islands
|US Virgin Islands Department of Labor
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