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Updated on Thursday, December 10, 2020
Offered by the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment insurance is a joint, federal-state program that gives eligible workers cash payments for a set period of time while they search for employment.
Unemployment insurance can be the parachute you need when your source of income suddenly evaporates. To collect those benefits, though, you need to understand how to effectively file for unemployment insurance. The filing process includes everything from checking your eligibility to gathering necessary documentation to filling out an application with your state.
- How to file for unemployment
- Unemployment benefits FAQ
How to file for unemployment
1. Determine your eligibility
Unemployment insurance is not automatically granted to everyone without a job. While states may vary, in general, you need to meet certain requirements to be eligible for unemployment insurance. Before filing, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you unemployed by no fault of your own? If you suddenly lose your job due to layoffs, for example, you are likely eligible for unemployment insurance. If you quit voluntarily or are fired from your job for, say, missing five straight days of work, you are likely ineligible for benefits.
- Do you meet work and wage requirements? Most states require you to have earned a certain wage and worked for a certain amount of time before becoming eligible to receive unemployment benefits — this is called your base period. These requirements can differ from state to state. In New York, for example, you must meet the following work and wage requirements:
- You must have worked and been paid wages for two calendar quarters (a three-month block of time) in your base period. In New York, the base period represents one year of work and wages.
- For claims filed in 2020, you must have been paid at least $2,600 in wages in one of the calendar quarters of your base period.
- The total wages paid to you in your base period must be one and a half times your highest quarter’s wages. In many states — including New York — the unemployment insurance website features a calculator tool that can provide estimates of what your weekly benefits will be.
These work and wage requirements can get complex. In New York, for example, there are basic base periods, which consist of the first four of the last five calendar quarters, and the alternative base period, which is the last four completed calendar quarters before the quarter in which you file for unemployment. If you don’t meet the eligibility for the basic base period, the alternative base period will be used to determine your eligibility.
- Do you meet other state requirements? This often includes being ready, willing and able to work and actively seeking work.
2. Don’t delay filing
After determining your eligibility, it’s important to file for unemployment insurance immediately after you become unemployed. This is because the timeline of receiving benefits isn’t immediate, and the longer you wait to file, the longer it will take for you to receive your payments.
Typically, it takes between two to three weeks before you receive your first unemployment payment. Some states even require a one-week waiting period, which means you’ll receive your first unemployment check the second week of your unemployment claim (not your first).
However, your state may require you to not file during a week in which you earned a certain amount in wages or worked a certain number of days. If you are laid off on a Thursday, for example, and you had worked that entire week earning wages, you might have to wait until the following Monday to apply for benefits.
Additionally, if you are denied unemployment benefits, you can file an appeal — but that must be done during a set period of time (again, this amount of time will be dependent on the state).
3. Gather your documentation
To ensure smooth sailing, you’ll want to have a number of documents on hand while filing for unemployment insurance. Gather the following documentation before you begin the filing process:
- Proof of employment and wages
- Your bank routing and checking numbers, if you opt to receive your benefits via direct deposit
- Your Social Security number
- Your driver’s license or state ID card number
- Your mailing address
- Your phone number
- Your alien registration card number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
- The names and addresses of all your employers from the last 18 months
- Your employer registration number from your most recent employer
4. Fill out an application with your state’s unemployment office
It’s important to note that you should file for unemployment in the state in which you worked. For example, if you currently live in New Jersey but worked in New York, you should file for unemployment with New York state’s unemployment office. If you worked in multiple states, contact the unemployment office for your state of residence, which should be able to offer insight into how to file your claim.
Each state has its own set of instructions outlining the steps you need to take in order to file for unemployment. The chart below directs you to your state’s unemployment office’s website. Find your state and follow its instructions on how to fill out an application.
District of Columbia: https://does.dc.gov/page/unemployment-compensation
South Carolina: https://dew.sc.gov/individuals/apply-for-benefits/claims-process
5. Budget for your unemployment payments
After you successfully file for unemployment through the state in which you worked, you should take a look at your current budget and factor in your unemployment payments in place of your previous paychecks.
The amount of money you receive through unemployment payments varies from state to state, but typically is calculated as a percentage of your pre-unemployment earnings. The U.S. Department of Labor reported a recent average weekly benefit payment of $319.44, although most states set their own ceilings for how much unemployment payments can be. The duration of unemployment payments also fluctuates based on your state, with many states allowing individuals to receive unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks.
Once you determine the amount and cadence of your unemployment payments, take a long, hard look at your budget and trim accordingly. While unemployment insurance can be a much-needed lifeline and a way to keep the lights on, you will likely be pulling in far less than you were in your pre-unemployment days.
6. Continue searching for work and reconfirm your eligibility
Even after you begin receiving your unemployment benefits, many states require you to take weekly action in order to keep receiving your payments. This requirement varies from state to state, but in many cases, your state will require you to reconfirm your eligibility on a regular basis.
In New York, for example, you are required to certify for benefits on a weekly basis. If you fail to do so, you risk losing your benefits. You’ll be asked to certify that you are still unemployed, and will be asked questions about your current job search and any income earned that week.
To continue to receive benefits, be sure to check with your state about any further action that you may need to take after your initial filing, and continue to actively search for work.
Unemployment benefits FAQ
Unemployment benefits are funded by taxes paid by employers that are collected by the state and federal government. The unemployment insurance program is a joint, federal-state program offered by the U.S. Department of Labor.
While qualifications for each state might vary, generally, you will be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if you:
- Quit your job voluntarily
- Are separated from your job through some fault of your own
- Are not actively looking for work
- Have refused suitable work
- Do not meet wage and work requirements
Additionally, gig workers, freelancers, self-employed workers, students and undocumented workers typically do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
It typically takes between two to three weeks for you to receive your first unemployment payment.
The duration of unemployment benefits varies from state to state, although many states have set the amount of time for which a person can receive unemployment benefits at 26 weeks.