Layoffs suck. And unfortunately, the news is regularly peppered with headlines of people losing their jobs in another round of corporate downsizing. So if you find yourself stunned in the aftermath of an unexpected company restructuring exercise, there’s good news: You are probably eligible for unemployment insurance.
Yes, dealing with any kind of government paperwork can generally be stressful, confusing, and unappealing. But if you don’t take advantage of unemployment benefits, you could be missing out on what is, essentially, free money. So it’s worth it to figure out if you’re eligible and, if you are, to make sure you opt into these benefits.
Read on for some straightforward tips on how to navigate applying for unemployment. Because being in-between jobs shouldn’t mean that your income grinds to a complete halt. And once you get your unemployment benefits in order, check out this list of other ways to deal with an unexpected layoff.
1. Figure Out Whether You’re Eligible
For the most part, unemployment insurance only applies to people who have been laid off. But if you quit your job or were fired — particularly if you were forced to quit or can prove you were wrongly terminated — you may still be able to get access to weekly unemployment checks. Technically, in order to qualify, your must be found to be unemployed through no fault of your own, but the definitions of this depend by state.
You must also meet your state's requirements for either time worked or wages earned during a certain window of time, called the "base period." This period of time will vary depending on the state, but usually it's the first four out of five calendar quarters prior to the time of filing (4 calendar quarters = 1 year).
But, the quickest way to find out whether you’re eligible for unemployment benefits is to just file.
2. Check Out Your State's Laws
Unemployment insurance benefits vary by state, and each state has its own method of determining the benefit amount and how long an individual can access funds within federal guidelines. These benefits are designed to provide temporary financial assistance to unemployed workers who meet the state's requirements. You can simply google the name of your state + "unemployment benefits" to find the website of your local unemployment office.
In most states, you can file a claim online or over the phone. You'll be asked for information, including the address of your former employer and the dates you were employed. Once filed, your claim may take some time to be approved, but you'll generally receive a check, or direct deposit, within two to three weeks, depending on your state's processes. Also, know that you'll be required to remain within the U.S. or Canada in order to collect your checks while unemployed.
3. Plan To Optimize Your Situation
Depending on your state, you will need to perform certain weekly tasks in order to remain eligible for your unemployment benefits. This may include applying for a minimum number of jobs (and being able to prove you applied), going on a certain amount of job interviews, or performing other ‘job-seeking-related’ tasks. In some states, you may be required to attend in-person meetings to check-in about the status of your job search.
Depending on where you live, you may also be allowed to do contract or freelance work while unemployed, but it’s likely that your income cannot exceed a certain amount (depending on your state) or else you’ll no longer qualify for your benefits.
Regardless of your weekly benefit amount, which will depend on how much money you were making and other factors dictated by state law, you might want to consider taking some time to plan out a strategy or budget to accommodate for this change in income.
Usually, an individual can collect unemployment benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks (though, again, limits do vary by state), so unemployment insurance isn’t meant to be a long-term solution. Still, while the amount may not be much (in some cases it’s only a couple hundred bucks a week), it is a great resource for someone who’s in-between jobs and not wanting to take out a loan or rack up a ton of credit card while securing another job.