How To File For Unemployment Benefits
Published 6/29/08 (Modified 6/17/11)
For those of you who are fortunate to have a stable job and blessed with being gainfully employed, congratulations and more power to you. For those of you who are currently unemployed or out of a job, I feel your frustration. I've been there before and know how scary and uncertain the experience can be.
In this fluctuating and unpredictable economy, you never quite know what is lurking around the corner. Life comes at us fast and sometimes job stability, occupational predictability, and all positive aspects of full time employment can disappear in a flash. Sometimes it can be due to our own fallibility and less than perfect work performance, and sometimes it can be due to slowdowns in the economy at large. Life is unpredictable and it's hard to be certain whether there is such a field that's a sure thing anymore. During the past few years, jobs and careers related to the real estate and housing market were hot and in great demand. However, years later, with the collapse of the housing bubble, many of the jobs previously fueled by the burgeoning real estate market have mostly disappeared. Even upper echelon MBA-type financial positions at top firms like Merrill Lynch have been down sized and trimmed back, resulting in many educated employees suddenly out of work.
If you find yourself one of many who have been laid off, I feel for you. I've been through a sudden job lay off before and it's not an easy feeling or experience to go through. Not only does it put you in a sudden cash flow crunch, but it forces you to scramble around in desperation to find employment quickly. For those who have a wife, husband, or children depending on that income, the extra financial and familial pressures make the process even more urgent. However, it doesn't have to be the end of the world. There are systems and governmental assistance programs in place to help guide and cushion you during those periodic times of unemployment - namely in the form of unemployment insurance benefits. Don't let those invaluable financial benefits and entitlements pass you by during times of need - seize them immediately.
Do Not Let Petty Shame Or Guilt Prevent You From Filing For Unemployment Insurance Benefits - It's Your Money and You Are Entitled To It
I've filed for unemployment benefits several times throughout my working career thus far. I will admit, the first time I filed, I felt a tinge of shame and guilt. I felt like it was a hit on my aura of financial independence and a stain on my own sense of masculine pride. As someone who was raised to believe that an important aspect of a man's duty and responsibility was to provide for himself and his family, it was difficult for me to depend on governmental handouts for the first time. To me, receiving unemployment benefits meant I was now on welfare, and no better than some unmotivated or lazy 40 year old bum who lived in his parent's basement like some financial leach on society.
However, now that I've had experience with being the recipient of unemployment benefits, I now understand what it truly is. To receive unemployment insurance benefits is by no means the same as receiving public welfare. It's a genuine financial safety net that is subsidized by employers in a socialized manner to help decent working people get back on their feet quickly with as little financial destruction or burden as possible. While unemployment benefits provide free money for times when you're not working, a fundamental and required tenant is that the recipient actively pursue employment leads while drawing on the temporary financial perks. Being a recipient has no effect on your existing credit score and the mere act of filing has no effect on your future employment prospects. The small amount of compensation provided isn't sufficient to save or grow rich on, but is just enough to give one a semblance of financial continuity and feeling of self reliance until the person can get back on his or her feet. It helps those who want to help themselves.
Who Pays For The Funds Dispersed For Unemployment Benefits?
Unemployment benefits are provided by a special jointly run fund provided by federal and state payroll taxes called the Unemployment Insurance program. No part of an employee's actual paycheck goes directly into this unemployment fund (unlike social security) but is instead indirectly funded by employers through a special unemployment insurance tax that they pay. Almost all employers are required to pay unemployment insurance tax to help fund this public service. Unlike worker's compensation, the employer does not pay unemployment benefits to laid off employees directly, but payments are instead issued by the responsible state agency as needed. Even if an employer goes out of business, unemployment benefits can still be distributed out to the company's now unemployed workers because funds are socially subsidized by other active employers who pay into this pool of shared funds. When you are out of work for whatever reason, it's in your own interest to apply for unemployment benefits as soon as possible. Even if you refuse to file for it, you should know that you are still indirectly paying for this socialized governmental service.
Remember, there is no shame in taking on this temporary financial safety net as a short term stop gap measure - it was designed for you when you need it the most. The money is rightfully yours because your employer pays into the fund on a mandatory basis. Without its existence, you theoretically would have been given higher pay. If because of pride, you refuse to take this temporary governmental handout, ask yourself this question - will pride put food on the table for your family in the meantime until you can find your next job? Will pride pay for necessary groceries or pay for a roof over your held until you can secure that next job interview? Think about it. Desperate times require desperate measures. I personally view unemployment benefits as part of my emergency fund measures.
As Soon As You Become Unemployed, Apply For Unemployment Benefits Immediately
The most important thing to know about seeking unemployment benefit compensation is to file as soon as you become either partially or fully unemployed. Even if you suspect you will be able to file a new job relatively soon, it's still in your best interest to still file for it sooner than later. There is almost always a 1-2 week lag time between filing and when you receive benefits. Frequently, there is also a mandatory one week waiting period during which the first week will not be compensated for. The benefit clock starts when you file so if you wait around to see if a new job is forthcoming, you may miss out on much deserved unemployment entitlements. If you wait several months after becoming unemployed to file, you won't be able to claim for the non-working months that have already passed. You can only claim for the time that comes after the moment you file, so don't delay - get credit for every single moment you remain unemployed.
Even if you are confident that you have sufficient pre-existing emergency funds to live off of, it's better to file and not risk the chance that your emergency funds ultimately run out. You don't want to look back later down the road only after draining your bank account completely and racking up unpaid credit card bills, and realized that you ought to have applied for unemployment benefits earlier.
Where Do You File For Unemployment Benefits?
Unemployment benefit applications should be filed in the state where the work was performed. Check out this official U.S. Department of Labor List Of State Unemployment Agencies to determine the correct filing location. Most states today allow unemployment benefit applications to be filed via telephone, in person, or through the Internet. If you want to avoid the stigma or emotional embarrassment of filing for this entitlement in person, filing via phone or through the Internet is a great way to circumvent this problem. Not only that, those methods are also quicker ways get your money more expeditiously.
As mentioned, unemployment filings are made with the state unemployment agency in the state jurisdiction where the work was performed. If you lived in New York and worked in New York, you need to file your claim with the state of New York. What about those who lived in one state, but worked in another? In my case when I filed way back when, I lived in the state of Maryland, but worked in Washington D.C. Since I performed my employment in D.C., my place of unemployment benefit filing would be in D.C. since that's where my employers actively paid their unemployment taxes to. I could still file with the state of Maryland, but would ultimately be referred by the unemployment hotline and managing system to seek benefits from Washington D.C.
Who Is Entitled To File For Unemployment Benefits and How Much Money Can You Expect?
Generally (individual state laws vary), to qualify for unemployment benefits, an applicant must (1) meet state eligibility requirements regarding how long the employee has previously been working and how much money the employee has earned, (2) make continuing and regular application updates to the managing state agency, (3) be continuously available for work and actively seeking work, and (4) not be subject to any disqualifying employment factor.
To be entitled for unemployment benefits, employees must have become unemployed through no fault of their own (although definitions on fault vary by state). Generally those who voluntarily quit their jobs or were discharged from their positions due to willful misconduct can't qualify. However, if you were laid off due to downsizing or were discharged due to simple lack of work, you will probably be entitled to benefits. Once approved, to continue to draw on your weekly unemployment checks or direct deposits, you will required to submit weekly updates of your employment and income status either by phone or over the Internet. During that time, you are expected to actively look for work. Obviously the benefits will stop as soon as you become gainfully employed again. While it's somewhat unlikely the state agency will know if you go on vacation during that period of time instead of looking for work, you should also know that by doing so, you are committing fraud and may be required to pay the benefits back along with penalty fees if discovered. I know some people who did decide to take a brief vacation while still drawing on unemployment benefits, managing to stay under the radar, but not everyone will be that fortunate. Big brother government has sneaky ways to track you down.
To file for unemployment benefits with your state agency, you will need to provide your name, mailing address, phone number, social security number, working phone number, and may sometimes be asked to provide recent pay stubs. However, with computerized filings, oftentimes you will only need to provide your former employer's name and address, without having to provide wage or salary paperwork. Your most recent employer will be automatically contacted by the state unemployment agency to verify the circumstances and reasons of your work discharge or layoff. Their response will help determine whether you exhibit any of the disqualifying factors to receiving unemployment benefits such as you quitting on your own, or getting fired because you were stealing from them.
The amount of your weekly unemployment benefit checks will vary depending on your past income and the maximum limits of your filing jurisdiction. For those who are higher income earners, your weekly checks will be worth more. The maximum payout amount also differs from state to state. Just to give you a very rough ballpark figure of how much you can expect, the maximum payout for the District of Columbia is currently $359 a week, before tax. At about $1,436 a month, this definitely goes a long way to help pay for basic living expenses like rent until you can get back on your employment feet.
Usually there is a total amount of benefits that each specific applicant can draw upon before the entire fund for that benefit year is tapped out. But until that happens, applicants can usually receive benefits for 6 months straight (26 weeks) before depleting their entire emergency unemployment benefit reserves. Keep in mind as well, all unemployment payouts are considered taxable income. There is usually no tax withholding associated with unemployment benefits so you may be required to pay estimated taxes to meet your tax obligations.