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How to Claim Unemployment Benefits in the United States

5 min read

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By Kelsey Miller

The U.S. Department of Labor operates a nationwide system of unemployment insurance. The exact way that this insurance is provided varies from state to state, but the federal government maintains certain standards that govern the process nationwide. While the details of how to claim unemployment benefits depends on how your state administers its UI program, there are some near-universal rules for filing and appealing an unemployment claim.

Are You Eligible to File an Unemployment Claim?

Unemployment insurance is meant to financially help workers get through temporary gaps in work. It is not intended to be a permanent, or even a long-term, support program. As such, most applicants have to meet basic eligibility standards before getting approval for their applications.

As a rule, qualified applicants must be separated from work through no fault of their own. In most states, this means that you must have been laid off, your contract must have ended or your employer has terminated your employment without cause. Termination with cause might not disqualify you for unemployment benefits, but only if your former employer does not contest your unemployment claim. Some workers apply for unemployment benefits during temporary work slowdowns, whether they have been formally laid off, temporarily laid off or had their work reduced from full time to part-time.

Before you apply for unemployment, you generally also have to meet your state’s work history and wage requirements. Each state has minimum amounts of withholding payments that must have been paid while you were working before you become eligible for unemployment. Workers who do not have the required work history or whose reported wages were not high enough to meet minimum eligibility standards might still be able to claim minimum benefit amounts. Rules for minimum benefits vary by state, but in most states your wages are assessed from the first four of the previous five quarters to establish your weekly benefit amount.

These are basic requirements common to almost all states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Many states impose additional requirements.

Tip: Check with your state’s UI office for a full list of eligibility requirements.


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Finding Your State Unemployment Agency

Applicants for unemployment benefits must apply through the unemployment agency in the state where they last worked. Under some very limited circumstances, out-of-state workers may be able to apply in the state where they live. Some federal workers, such as members of the military, have their own unemployment requirements and applications must go through the federal government to issue a DOL unemployment claim.

Most workers are able to apply for unemployment benefits online or by phone by contacting their state’s workforce development office. The U. S. Department of Labor has a comprehensive list of state unemployment offices, with contact phone numbers and website URLs, for applicants who need to file online or get instructions on how to claim unemployment benefits by phone.

Apply for Unemployment Online or by Phone

While each office has its own procedures, the process of filing a claim is similar nearly everywhere. To file online, it’s usually necessary to visit the state office’s website and navigate to the File a Claim page. Often, these sections are listed near the top of the page, sometimes labeled “My Unemployment Claim,” “File My Weekly Unemployment Claim” or simply, “File Online.”

Once you have the application page loaded, the system will likely need your personal information, as well as information about your former employer. Almost everything you need can be found on your last W-2 earnings statement, such as the employer’s tax ID number, business name and state ID. If you have held more than one job in the previous 15 months, collect identifying information from all of your employers in that period. You should also be ready to provide your own information, which may include your:

Most agencies require you to create an account before you can claim unemployment benefits. This is usually simple and only requires an email address and unique password.

Once you have an account, fill out the online application. These differ by state, but almost all ask for the same or similar information. In general, the application asks you when your last date of work was and the reason you’re no longer working.

Other Information To Know

Most applications ask whether you have been too sick or injured to work. If you are out of work due to injury, unemployment insurance is unlikely to cover your claim, and you will likely be referred to your state’s workers’ compensation office instead.

The application is also likely to ask whether you are available to work or have tried to work during your period of unemployment. Finally, most forms ask whether you have done any work at all during your claim period, and whether you have been paid or not. If the answer is yes, your benefit amount may be reduced. Remember that unemployment income is taxable, and you should have the opportunity to check a box on the application if you wish to have estimated taxes withheld from your check.

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To apply by phone, call your state’s unemployment office on its main telephone line. Most states use an automated system, though some others still have live operators to take your claim. The form the operator fills out is substantially similar to the online form you would fill out for yourself on the website.

Warning: After submitting a claim, you may be contacted for more information or a phone interview. It’s very important to take this call and provide the requested information in a timely manner. Failure to do so may result in a denial of your claim.

How to Appeal an Unemployment Disqualification

If your claim is denied for any reason, you have the right to appeal the decision. You should receive a letter in the mail informing you of the denial, along with a brief explanation of the reason why. If you do not have a letter, you can log in to unemployment online and check your unemployment claim status.

In most states, the process for filing an appeal is similar to the initial application process. Fill out the online appeal form and provide your best, brief explanation of why you believe the office’s decision was in error. Some states provide an unemployment appeal letter sample or list of reasons you can appeal for, such as incorrect information or a disputed cause of termination.

Your appeal will either succeed, in which case your benefits should be paid out along with a lump sum for your back pay, or it will be rejected. If your appeal is rejected, the process in many states allows you to ask for review from an administrative law court, which is a formal legal proceeding done at the unemployment department’s office. Your employer may also attend the hearing and dispute your claim, after which the judge will make a final decision.

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