How to Collect Unemployment

Katie McBeth  | 

Many Americans will experience unemployment sometime during their lives. Whether it’s getting laid off, fired, or simply quitting without having a new job lined up, unemployment can be a massive roadblock in your life.

However, being unemployed doesn’t mean you are out of options. Luckily for many people, there are government programs set up to help make your time during unemployment a bit more comfortable.

How can you navigate those options and find the right benefits for you? What benefits are available, and what are the rules for applying to each one? Let Fiscal Tiger walk you through the steps of how to apply to and claim unemployment benefits. 

Applying for Unemployment Benefits by State

Applying for unemployment varies from state to state, but regardless of that application process, you will need the following in order to apply:

  • Social Security number;
  • Alien registration card (green card) if you are not a citizen of the U.S.;
  • Driver’s license number;
  • Mailing address (including zip code);
  • Phone number;
  • A list of your past employers, normally over the past two years (including name, phone number, address, and dates of employment).

Below is a directory of all the Department of Labor Unemployment benefit websites for each state and the District of Columbia:

Additionally, there are individual websites for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (available in Spanish).

Types of Unemployment Benefits

Jobs are more than just a way to accrue income; they also provide people with additional security nets such as retirement savings and health insurance. When unemployed, all those additional security nets have the potential to be taken away, making unemployment even more stressful than it already is.

Luckily, there are a handful of government benefits you can utilize to make your life a little easier during this difficult time.

Unemployment Insurance

Unemployment insurance (or benefits) are provided to you by the state you are employed in after losing a job at no fault of your own. Certain eligibility requirements are set by your state, and you must meet them to qualify for weekly benefits. All benefits received are taxable and must be reported as a part of your gross income for the year.

Traditionally, you can receive up to half of your earnings, with each state setting their own maximum amount. Most states allow you to apply for unemployment online or over the phone. (Note: If you work in one state but live in another state or recently moved, you must apply for benefits in the state you worked in. Additionally, if you worked in multiple states, contact your local unemployment office to assist you with filing.)

SNAP or Food Stamps

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is a government-run program to help unemployed or low-income families provide healthy food for their household. The program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but applications must go through your state of residence.

Eligibility is also determined at the state level, and benefits are issued through an electronic card (similar to a bank card) that can be used at most grocery stores, some convenience stores, and some farmer’s markets;

Health Insurance Options

Losing health insurance through your work can be devastating, considering how expensive most medical treatments are in the United States. It is possible to find low cost or sliding scale clinics that can work with your limited income, but there are also benefits available for continuing health insurance while unemployed.

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, also known as COBRA, allows individuals and their families to continue group insurance coverage via their previous employer’s plan for a limited period of time. You are eligible if you voluntarily or involuntarily lost your job, are a qualified beneficiary of your group plan, and if your group plan can be covered by COBRA (speak with the group provider to find out).

There is also the option of signing up for traditional health care coverage through your state via Healthcare.gov, including Medicaid or Medicare (if you qualify).

Social Security and Disability Insurance

Unfortunately, many on-the-job accidents or unrelated medical health conditions may cause some people to permanently lose their job for an extended period of time.

Those who qualify for disability insurance fall under one (or more) of the categories defined by the government as “any condition that limits your ability to do any major life activity: such as loss of sight, hearing, walking, or difficulty working or thinking.”

The government has provided some security for those that suffer from a debilitating condition, both in long-term and short-term cases. Disability insurance is generally provided through your previous employer (depending on what they can offer) and can last anywhere from two years (the limit for short-term) or for an entire lifetime (long-term).

The Social Security Administration (SSA) also offers disability benefits for those who have met a certain threshold in paying Social Security taxes. The SSA can also provide supplemental income (Supplemental Security Income, or SSI) for those who are financially struggling to meet basic needs for food, housing, and clothing;

Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation is a right protected by the government that allows workers (or their dependents in the case of death) who were injured on the job the ability to receive a fixed pay while they recover. If you’re in need of workers’ comp, find out more about your local compensation laws and how to apply.

Welfare or TANF

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is a government program that can help families recover from hardship and move forward. According to the federal government: “Recipients may qualify for help with food, housing, home energy, child care, job training, and more.” Each state has its own TANF program — many of which have different names — with various eligibility requirements.

How Soon Can You Apply for Unemployment?

For traditional unemployment benefits, you can apply as soon as you’ve been laid off or left your job. In fact, you should apply as soon as possible, as it can sometimes take a few weeks before you will see a check in the mail.

Additionally, if there is any uncertainty surrounding your eligibility, your local Department of Labor will need to do a more thorough investigation to ensure you are eligible for unemployment insurance — potentially extending the amount of time it takes to start receiving benefits.

There is also a chance that your claim will be denied — which could further extend your wait for benefits — but every state’s Department of Labor offers some sort of an appeal process. Contact your local office to discuss your options for an appeal.

How Long Can You Be on Unemployment?

Prior to the 2008 recession, almost all states had a maximum allowance of 26 weeks during which an individual could receive unemployment benefits. However, in 2014 a law was passed that allowed some states to extend that period from 26 weeks to up to 73 weeks. Again, the duration you can remain on unemployment benefits varies from state to state: anywhere from less than 26 weeks to the full 73 weeks. Check with your local Department of Labor to find out more.

Restrictions on Collecting Unemployment

Every state has different requirements for unemployment benefits. However, most of the states share these same requirements:

  • You must be willing, able, available, and capable of applying for jobs and looking for work. Some states even require you to apply to a certain amount of job postings every week or month;
  • If you quit with “good cause,” you are eligible for benefits. However, if you quit without giving a reason, or simply on a whim, the state department of labor may deny your claim. What qualifies as “good cause” is determined at the employment office, and the decision can be appealed if your case is denied;
  • If you are fired for misconduct at work, you are not eligible;
  • If you were self-employed, you are not eligible;
  • If you are attending school, you are not eligible;
  • If you are involved in a labor dispute with your previous employer, you are not eligible;
  • If you resigned due to illness, you are not eligible for unemployment benefits, but could be eligible for disability or SSI benefits.

Contact Unemployment Office

The contact information for your local unemployment office — as well as an array of other helpful information — can be found on your state’s unemployment agency website, or by simply typing the name of your state and “unemployment office” into an internet search engine.

Contacting the unemployment office via phone can prove difficult, so you should try your best to find the information you need in the fine print of the unemployment protocol documentation.

Surviving Unemployment

Claiming unemployment benefits carries a lot of stigma. At times, you might feel as if applying means you’ve given up. When being fired or let go is hard enough, it’s tough to convince yourself that you are a good worker worthy of a paycheck.

But don’t let unemployment discourage you. Unemployment can be a temporary fix to help you get between jobs, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be permanent. It is a government program that was created to help you during those transition periods.

If you’ve recently been laid off, quit, or fired from your job, know that unemployment — as well as the various other government benefits — are there for you as a safety net. Don’t be discouraged from applying, and don’t let the job hunt get you down. In time, you will be able to overcome this challenge and come out stronger.


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Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth