How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

Photo illustration to accompany article on how to apply for unemployment benefits Getty Images

We want to help you make more informed decisions. Some links on our site — clearly marked — will take you to a partner website and may result in us earning a referral commission. For more information, see How We Make Money.

Filing for unemployment was unthinkable for many people just a few months ago — and now, it suddenly isn’t. Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment in the weeks after the economy started shutting down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This surge in applications for unemployment benefits has overwhelmed unemployment offices, which found themselves completely unprepared to handle the volume of web traffic and phone calls. Despite hiring additional call center employees, extending phone hours, and even assigning applicants days of the week by last name, states’ efforts haven’t been enough to meet the demand.

Those able to get through and claim benefits have been able to collect an additional $600 per week above their state’s allowance, due to special federal stimulus legislation. But that bonus is set to expire at the end of July.  

The unfortunate reality is that many unemployed workers feel they’ve been left high and dry to navigate the complex unemployment system on their own. Obstacles like crashed websites and hours on hold continue to cause delays as rent and bills become due with diminishing funds left to pay them.

Whether you’re applying for unemployment benefits for the first time or are waiting for funds to arrive, the process can be complicated. 

Who Is Eligible for Unemployment Benefits?

Whether or not you can collect unemployment depends on a few different factors that vary by state. The Department of Labor lists three general criteria to be eligible for unemployment benefits:

  1. You must be unemployed through no fault of your own. For example, you can’t collect unemployment after quitting your job or being fired for misconduct.
  2. You must meet hour and/or wage requirements. Each state has its own requirements for the amount earned or hours worked before qualifying for unemployment.
  3. You must meet any additional requirements set by your state. These requirements can be looked up on the CareerOneStop website.

How the CARES Act Can Help You

However, many of the normal rules are temporarily out the window due to emergency relief legislation recently passed by Congress. 

One of the many provisions of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) is Federal Pandemic Unemployment (PUA), which extends benefits to some self-employed workers and independent contractors. These workers — hairdressers and Uber drivers, for example — have typically been shut out of unemployment programs. Job loss for part-timers is also covered under the CARES Act. Also, those who are diagnosed with COVID-19, have a household member test positive for COVID-19, or are unable to work due to quarantine may also be eligible. 

Your state handles and determines your regular unemployment benefits, including setting the amount you’ll receive. However, another recent law called the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) provides an additional $600 per week to those who also qualify for regular unemployment. The extra $600 is paid out automatically as you receive your regular unemployment checks. As of now, this is set to expire on July 31.

Furthermore, those who have exhausted their state’s unemployment benefits may now extend their benefit period for additional 13 weeks.

Unemployment Before and After Pandemic

Before the pandemic, most states required those collecting unemployment to meet weekly criteria to continue eligibility. Those included:

  • File claims weekly or every other week 
  • Answer eligibility questions regularly, such as job offers or wages earned
  • Register for work eligibility by creating an online account and uploading your resume
  • Prove your job search periodically
  • Report to your local unemployment office periodically

However, many states have loosened restrictions due to the Labor Department providing guidance around flexibility in requirements. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the listed requirements in your state could be outdated. Many states, like Washington, have temporarily lifted those requirements to speed up the process and ease of receiving benefits. “The new laws allow waivers of many of the prior strict requirements to get unemployment,” says Scott Behren, an unemployment attorney and owner of Behren Law Firm

More Unemployment Facts 

  • For most states, you can expect to receive benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks. Under the CARES act, this may be extended based on certain circumstances.
  • You can also expect to see income tax deducted from your unemployment check. 
  • You will not know how much you will receive from your state until after you apply, and each state uses its own formula. Typically, this is determined based on a percentage of your previous 12 months of income. 
  • Each state calculates its maximum weekly benefit (MWB) amount. If your weekly payout is larger than the MWB, then you will default to the MWB amount. 

Pro Tip

The CARES Act extends benefits beyond the normal scope of criteria. Unemployment attorney Scott Behren advises: “If you’re in doubt, just apply.”

How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

With an overwhelming majority of unemployment offices closed due to social distancing orders, applying for unemployment in person is no longer an option until local governments decide it’s safe for them to reopen. The only remaining options are to apply by phone or online.

But it appears applying for unemployment benefits over the phone isn’t allowed in all states. The Connecticut Department of Labor unemployment benefits website, for example, features a disclaimer in giant red letters that reads: “Telephone assistance is not available for unemployment claims. Please do not call for unemployment claims assistance.”

Even if your state allows workers to file for unemployment over the phone, it’s a good idea to file online as a first option due to hours-long wait times being reported across the board. If your state’s unemployment benefits website won’t load or keeps crashing, don’t panic. Keep trying throughout the day to see if web traffic slows down at a later time. If you’re still having technical difficulties, try accessing the online application during off-peak hours, between midnight and 5 a.m.  

Be prepared when you file 

When you apply for unemployment, you’ll need to have a few documents on hand to provide all the necessary information to your local unemployment office. Exactly which information is required varies by state, but generally includes:

  • Social Security card
  • Driver’s license or state ID
  • Mailing address
  • Phone number
  • Bank account information
  • Alien registration card, if not a U.S. citizen

Best methods for approval

When it all boils down, the best way to get approved for unemployment benefits is to meet all the criteria for unemployment in your state. But with eligibility requirements broadened in many cases, it can’t hurt to try. 

“If you’re in doubt, just apply,” says Behren. 

Keep in mind that an incomplete application can delay your case or cause it to be rejected entirely. When applying for unemployment, make sure not to leave anything blank. If you don’t know the answer to something, wait to file until you have it.

What to Expect After You Apply for Unemployment

After you submit your application for unemployment benefits, it’s a waiting game. Current backlogs mean it could take weeks to hear back about the status of your application. Your state will likely issue a decision by mail and/or via its online portal. Check in regularly for updates and to make sure you don’t need to provide additional information to finish processing your application.

How to Handle Delays and Rejection

Delays in unemployment benefits processing times should be expected as states catch up with the backlog in applications. Behren, who practices in Florida, expressed frustration at the delays. “There is not too much you can do to get them to move faster, but I would probably try on occasion to log into the system and check the status of your claim to make sure that they are not waiting for more information from you to process,” says Behren.

Even more frustrating is waiting weeks for an application to be processed only to find out it’s been rejected. The rule of thumb: Always appeal. While it’s hard to say exactly how many workers are successful in the appeals process, it’s more likely now than ever states are erroneously denying unemployment benefits due to constantly changing requirements.

“Unfortunately, the systems were not prepared to handle the new eligibility requirements, and claims were denied based upon the then current eligibility requirements,” says Bobbi Kloss, director of human capital management for the Benefit Advisors Network (BAN), an insurance agency advisory group.

It’s also possible you filed your initial claim too early, before new protections were put into place that would now make you eligible for unemployment benefits. “If employees were first ineligible for benefits pre-COVID-19, they should review the Pandemic Unemployment Insurance eligibility guidelines to determine if they may now have a qualifying reason and then follow their state guidelines for either appealing the decision and/or reapplying,” advises Kloss.

Just make sure you’re aware of the deadline to file an appeal. Missing deadlines is an easy way to undermine your chances of success at changing the outcome.