Losing a job can feel like the end of the world, but life – and bills – don't stop when you're out of work. If you've been at risk of a layoff or termination in the past, you may have considered (or even relied upon) collecting unemployment benefits. Knowing you can continue to cash checks after a job has ended is surely comforting, but how do you actually make it happen?
The Federal-State Unemployment Insurance Program "provides unemployment benefits to eligible workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own (as determined under State law), and meet other eligibility requirements of State law."
Put simply, employers pay into their state's individual Unemployment Insurance (UI) program as employees work for them. In cases where those workers lose their jobs because of layoffs or a corporate restructuring, that money is redirected to them, provided they follow rules regarding looking for new work.
The amount of benefits given and the criteria to be eligible vary from state to state, but the program's core concept is uniform across the country. Regardless of where you live, taking in the tips below can only help to smooth your journey back to a full-time job.
Even if You're Unsure You're Eligible, Apply
"Laid-off workers should not be dissuaded from claiming UI benefits because they have heard they may not be eligible for one or another reason," says Michigan State University professor and Senior Economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, Stephen A. Woodbury. "What they may have heard from someone they know in another state may or may not apply to them. It doesn't hurt to apply if you think you may be eligible for benefits."
According to a 2017 National Employment Law Project report, fewer people are applying for UI benefits, despite being eligible to accept them. And as many UI offices make sure to communicate to claimants, employees never have to "pay in" or have a single cent deducted from a paycheck to later take advantage of unemployment insurance. In a sense, that means this money is "free," should claimants need it.
How Much Will You Get Paid?
Before diving into the nitty gritty details, how much they will be paid each week is probably what most UI applicants want to know first. Again, it's important to understand that the amount you can collect might differ greatly depending on which state you live in.
As a general rule, don't expect to receive as much pay as you earned from your employer. Even then, the amount will be subject to your state's weekly maximum limit. To figure out how much you stand to collect, start by collecting your paystubs. You'll need to provide proof of income to the state to begin collecting benefits.
Next, do some research. Your state should have an official calculator or chart for estimating potential benefits, and third parties offer their own convenient calculators. To give a sense of how these calculations vary across the United States, the maximum weekly payment allowed in Mississippi is capped at $235, while Illinois' same limit sits at $1495.
Will Your Benefits be Taxed Now or Later?
If given the option, pay attention to whether you select for taxes to be deducted directly from your checks, or if you've selected to pay those amounts later. Sadly, there is no way around it; taxes will need to be paid. You just have to choose whether to pay now or later.
Though it may seem trivial, this can be crucial to consider while budgeting on a reduced income. Some people choose to defer paying taxes so that they receive more money in the short term. This strategy works if you get a job right away. However, if you don't, you could be facing a steep tax bill and no job.
When Will You Be Paid?
While every state does things slightly differently, it usually takes two or three weeks for eligible claimants to start receiving payment. Even after a claim has been approved, some states institute a week-long waiting period once the claim is active. This means you'll still have to provide updates about your job search without being immediately paid.
Being let go from a job as a result of workplace misconduct may increase the waiting period by several more weeks or months. While the definition of "misconduct" is different state-to-state, in New Jersey, someone fired for theft or failing a drug test could wait an extra 10 weeks in, while in Maryland the wait could be 15 weeks, and in Oklahoma they could become completely ineligible. Filing fraudulently or otherwise incorrectly can also result in a string of pay-free penalty weeks.
Finally, be aware of the ways technology has modernized the systems surrounding UI benefits. Instead of receiving paper checks, most payments are delivered through a state-provided debit card or direct deposits to a checking account. Some states still give a choice between traditional checks and paperless deposits, so factor in a bit of extra time if you opt for the former.
How Long Can You Collect Unemployment Benefits?
Once your claim is processed and accepted, your state will require you to prove you're both actively applying for new work and actually available to take on said opportunities. According to a California Employment Development Department program manager interviewed by LiveCareer, who did not provide their name, an eligible UI claimant is someone who is, "physically able to work, readily available for work, seeking work for which they are qualified, and accepting offers of suitable work if offered."
The amount of time you can continue to certify your claim and accept benefits will largely depend on which state you live in. Florida and North Carolina, for example, allow a maximum of 12 weeks of UI benefits, where in most other states the limit is 26 weeks.
If you think you already know the ins and outs of your state's UI program (even if you've collected benefits there before), you should be aware of this critical rule.
"Until less than a decade ago, every state in the U.S. offered benefits that lasted up to 26 weeks, and in a couple of cases, a bit more," says Gary Burtless, economist and Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution. "For the previous five decades, people around the country could count on 26 weeks of benefits, except in serious recessions, when benefits lasted even longer."
What Can Jeopardize Unemployment Benefits?
Once you have begun the process, there are a few things that can impact your ability to collect unemployment benefits.
Not listing job applications submitted
Rules regarding travel can be nebulous. In many states, including California, this is confirmed by providing proof of job applications on a bi-weekly basis. The employer name, position title, and address (online or physical) to which your application is sent will need to be provided to your local UI office by mail or through an online form.
Be aware that the requirement to actively seek work can affect travel, as you are required to be ready to attend interviews or "accept offers of suitable work," should a sudden opportunity arise. While claimants might technically "be able to work and available to work" while out of town, if pre-existing travel plans or a previous obligation might keep you from being truly available, notify your local UI office to discuss how this might pause or otherwise affect your claim.
Performing freelance or temp work
Performing temporary work also impacts unemployment benefits. If you've got a side gig, no matter how part-time, any income earned should be reported in these check-ins. In most cases, the amount you earned will be deducted from your next UI payment.
In an ideal situation, you wouldn't experience a layoff in the first place. But when the unfortunate strikes and help is on hand in the form of UI benefits, knowing what that process entails might get you paid sooner. In the event you are out of work and successfully file a claim, LiveCareer's Resume Builder can help to reduce the drudgery of writing weekly resumes. And if you'd like to first brush up on the fundamentals first, we've got resume writing tips for that too.