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How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

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Unemployment benefits are usually available to workers who have been laid off or fired through no fault of their own. These benefits are insurance, not charity — employers are required to pay a special tax to fund this national compensation program. Apply for unemployment benefits as soon as you can after being notified of a layoff or termination, because it can take two to three weeks to receive the first check.

Gather the information needed to start a claim: employment dates, salary/wages information, and the telephone numbers and full addresses of former employers — some states require information going back 18 months or more. Look at your old W2s or other tax return documents to find your employer's Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN). Have this information and a state-issued driver's license or ID card at your fingertips when you file for unemployment benefits to keep your claim from being delayed.

Check your eligibility. Unemployment benefits are distributed by individual states, and qualifications may vary. In most states, you must have worked at the job you're claiming benefits from for at least two quarters of a calendar year, and some states require four consecutive calendar quarters. There are also wage minimums — in many states you must have been paid at least $1,600 during one quarter of your employment period. Visit your home state's labor department website to find a full list of qualifications.

Apply for benefits online, via phone or by mail. Most states offer online applications and claims tracking, and encourage claimants to apply this way, as the processing times are faster. You'll find a full set of instructions on your state's labor department website, as well as call center numbers in case you have trouble filling out your application.

If you've worked in multiple states or worked in a different state than the one in which you currently reside, you should still contact the call center of your home state for assistance. In most cases you will need to file your claim with your employer's state, but there are exceptions, and your home state's agency may be able to help you with complicated out-of-state claims.

Keep an eye out for additional paperwork from your state's unemployment insurance agency. Even if you are initially approved, you may receive additional, time-sensitive forms by mail within 10 days of applying.

Follow all instructions to the letter. To continue to receive unemployment benefits once you've been approved, you will have to file a claim either weekly or biweekly based on state requirements, and report any earnings you may have received. You will also have to look for a job while collecting unemployment checks and may be required to keep a log of your job search as proof.

Tip

The average time you are able to collect unemployment benefits is 26 weeks. However, during times of economic slowdown the U.S. government may extend the limit to 52 weeks.

You may decline jobs that are unsuitable or those that do not fit your skill set.

Warning

Don't forget to include unemployment benefits on your next tax return.

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