How to Get Unemployment Benefits: 3 Expert Tips If You’re Out of Work


For millions of Americans, unemployment benefits provide a lifeline that lets them keep the wolf from the door. But collecting those benefits isn’t always simple. Unemployment claims are often denied, and sometimes for avoidable reasons.

But first, let’s answer some basic questions you might have.

What Are Unemployment Benefits?

Americans who find themselves without a job may qualify for help from the government. Officially called the Federal-State Unemployment Insurance Program, these benefits can provide you temporary income while you’re unemployed and looking for work.

Do I Qualify for Unemployment Benefits?

You must meet two essential criteria to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, according to the US Department of Labor:

1. You lost your job for a reason that wasn’t your fault.

2. You meet your state’s unemployment insurance rules, including requirements about the time you previously worked or the wages you earned.

How Do Unemployment Benefits Differ in Different States?

Your state determines what unemployment benefits you are eligible for, how much assistance you can receive, and how long you can receive these benefits. Check the bottom of this page to find how to start the application process in your state.

How Do I Get Unemployment Benefits?

Because the rules for unemployment insurance are strict, it’s important that you understand what’s required of you to apply for benefits.

We spoke with Spencer Cohn, national employee representative and author of Beat the Boss: Win in the Workplace. He specializes in helping workers collect rightful unemployment benefits. We asked him to share tips for collecting unemployment benefits, and he gave us a lot of them. Here are the highlights::

Tip #1: File for Unemployment Benefits

Cohn told us the most common reason people aren’t able to collect unemployment is that they don’t file for benefits. They often don’t file because they think they will go back to work soon. “That’s the biggest mistake because that’s another week that you don’t get unemployment,” he said.

Another reason they don’t file is they assume they aren’t entitled to benefits. “People think that if I quit my job, I can’t collect unemployment. That’s not true. If you have good cause and you tried to preserve your job before you quit, then you are entitled to your unemployment,” said Cohn. For example, you may refuse to work because you think your working conditions aren’t safe. If you document the problem with your supervisor and the employer refuses to correct the issue, you may still be able to quit and be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Tip #2: Read and Respond to Your Unemployment Notice of Determination

Once you file for unemployment compensation, an adjudicator will review your case. That person decides whether you are entitled to your unemployment benefits or not. You’ll then receive a Notice of Determination explaining whether you are eligible for benefits or your claim has been denied.

Sounds simple enough, right? We challenge you to read one of these notices. Apparently, bewilderment is not an uncommon response. But many people just throw the notice in the mail pile to figure out later. Big mistake.

The Notice of Determination typically states whether the employer is “chargeable” for your claim or “not chargeable.” If the adjudicator determines the employer was not chargeable (which essentially means you aren’t getting an unemployment check), you have to request an appeal within a very specific period of time—20 calendar days in Florida, for example. If you appeal, you’ll have to attend a hearing to determine your eligibility.

When you get your Notice of Determination, read it carefully. If you aren’t absolutely certain you understand it, get help. Don’t assume you aren’t eligible for benefits. If you don’t file an appeal by the deadline, warned Cohn, the state will deny your benefits, and you’ll have a difficult time reopening the claim.

Unemployment claims are denied for many reasons but the most common are the following:

1. The employee committed misconduct.

2. The employee quit a job without good cause.

But even if these are the case, the situation isn’t always clear-cut.

Say you were fired for violating a company policy. Your employer may not give you any strikes and may fire you on the spot. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. Your state unemployment department’s appeals office may find there was good cause to separate you from employment but that it wasn’t sufficient to deny you unemployment benefits. What’s more, these policy violations typically have to occur at the workplace. If the violations aren’t directly related to work, they generally can’t be a reason to deny benefits.

Or perhaps you were fired for absenteeism. If you were late or couldn’t get to work for a compelling reason (traffic, illness, or a major snowstorm, for example), you could still collect unemployment provided you called and let your employer know about the problem and explained that it was beyond your control.

If your employer does write you up for a violation, “don’t refuse to sign it, or you can be fired for insubordination,” advised Cohn. “What you should do is sign it, explain on that document why you disagree, and then indicate that you are not finished or that your explanation is not complete.” Insist on a copy for your records.

Tip #3: Fight for Your Unemployment Benefits

If your unemployment claim does go to a hearing, your case will be assigned to an administrative law judge (often known as a Referee)—and it can get ugly. Your employer has plenty of incentive to challenge your claim. If you are successful, the employer’s unemployment insurance tax rate will go up, often significantly. And don’t forget that state unemployment funds are usually strained, which may result in state workers looking for reasons to deny claims.

Cohn recommended claimants get help preparing for their appeal. “The employer comes in with witnesses (who likely still work for the employer), an HR person, maybe even an attorney,” he cautioned. You’ll be outgunned.

The most surprising advice we heard from Cohn? File for unemployment while you’re still working if possible. Why? Because many workers employed through leasing or staffing companies may not realize they work for another company. And your eligibility for unemployment depends on a number of factors, including how long you worked, how much you were paid, and what state you live in. So it’s best to play it safe and file once you receive notice of separation.

“If they separate from employment, they have to notify the staffing company within 48 hours or they lose their unemployment benefits,” warned Cohen, who also added: “The deck is stacked against the employee, no question about it.”

If you’re concerned about your credit while you’re unemployed, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. If you’d like to monitor your credit more regularly,’s free Credit Report Card provides you with an easy-to-understand breakdown of the information in your credit report using letter grades, along with two free credit scores that are updated monthly.

If you’re ready to apply for benefits, check the table below for your state’s or region’s unemployment insurance website to get started.

State or Region Start Here for Unemployment Benefits
Alabama Alabama Department of Labor: Unemployment
Alaska Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development: Unemployment Insurance
Arizona Arizona Department of Economic Security: Unemployment Insurance Benefits
Arkansas Arkansas Department of Workforce Services: Unemployment Insurance
California State of California Employee Development Department: Filing a Claim
Colorado Colorado Department of Labor and Employment: Unemployment
Connecticut Connecticut Department of Labor: File for Unemployment Benefits
Delaware State of Delaware Division of Unemployment Insurance: Claimant Services
District of Columbia District of Columbia Department of Employment Services: Unemployment Insurance Service Center for Claimants
Florida Florida Department of Economic Opportunity: Apply for Benefits
Georgia Georgia Department of Labor: Get Unemployment Assistance
Hawaii State of Hawaii, Department of Labor and Industrial Relations: Unemployment Insurance
Idaho Idaho Department of Labor: Internet Unemployment System
Illinois Illinois Department of Employment Security: Unemployment Application
Indiana Indiana Department of Workforce Development: File for Unemployment
Iowa Iowa Workforce Development: File a Claim for Unemployment Insurance Benefits
Kansas Kansas Department of Labor: Kansas Unemployment Benefits
Kentucky Kentucky Office of Employment and Training: Unemployment Insurance Claims System
Louisiana Louisiana Workforce Commission: HiRE — Applying for Unemployment Insurance
Maine Maine Department of Labor: Unemployment Claims Filing
Maryland State of Maryland Division of Unemployment Insurance: Maryland Initial Claim Form
Massachusetts File for Unemployment Benefits
Michigan Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency: New Claimant Filing
Minnesota Minnesota Unemployment Insurance: Applicant Login
Mississippi Mississippi Department of Employment Security: Getting Started
Missouri Missouri Division of Employment Security: New User Sign Up
Montana Montana Department of Labor & Industry: Unemployment Insurance for You
Nebraska NEworks: Unemployment Services
Nevada Unemployment Insurance Nevada: Claimant Registration
New Hampshire New Hampshire Employment Security: File for Benefits
New Jersey NJSuccess: File a Claim Home
New Mexico New Mexico Workforce Connection: Register
New York New York Department of Labor: JobZone Account Portal
North Carolina North Carolina Department of Commerce: Division of Employment Security
North Dakota Job Service North Dakota: File a Claim
Oklahoma Oklahoma Employment Security Commission: Oklahoma Internet Claim System
Oregon Oregon Employment Department: Online Claim System
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Office of Unemployment Compensation: File an Initial Claim
Puerto Rico Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources: Unemployment Insurance
Rhode Island Rhode Island Unemployment Insurance Internet Claims System
South Carolina South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce: Claimant Account Creation
South Dakota South Dakota Department of Labor & Regulation: Register
Tennessee Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development: Apply for Benefits
Texas Texas Workforce Commission: Apply for Benefits
Utah Utah Department of Workforce Services: Initial Claims
Vermont Vermont Department of Labor: Establishing an Unemployment Claim
Virginia Virginia Employment Commission: File an Initial or Weekly/Continued Claim
Washington Washington State Employment Security Department: Signup
West Virginia WorkForce West Virginia: Unemployment Compensation Division Web Application
Wisconsin State of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development: Apply for Unemployment Benefits Online
Wyoming Wyoming Workforce Services: Unemployment Insurance Services

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10 Smart Financial Retirement Moves You Can Make Today

An early distribution penalty isn't always inevitable. These exceptions might just apply to you.

Some employers offer financial and retirement advice to their workers, but you may not have been so lucky. And considering that 30% of workers outside of local and state government and the private sector don’t have access to retirement benefits from their employers, it’s no wonder people have anxieties about their futures.

But don’t worry! There are plenty of moves you can make now to ensure your retirement—whether decades or just years away—won’t be a stressful financial experience for you. Here’s a 10-step program for retirement bliss.

1. Focus on Your Game Plan

Without a strategy for financial retirement, no amount of advice will get you where you need to be. So your first step is to take stock of your current financial situation, including your savings, debts, and investments. Then decide on your retirement goals. Do you want to keep your current income and spending lifestyle, or could you get by with a little less? At what age do you want to retire? Those born after 1960 will generally retire at 67, but some people can retire earlier while others need to work longer.

2. Take Advantage of Benefits Offered by Your Employer

Your employer may offer one or several retirement benefits, like 401(k)s, pension plans, health savings accounts (HSAs), or other benefits. If so, you should enroll—especially if your employer offers matching funds. Start contributing the maximum amount you can afford—for example, try to shoot for at least 25% of your income if you’re in your 40s—and you should have a nice nest egg to use when you retire.

3. Consider Other Retirement Accounts

If your employer doesn’t offer retirement benefits, you can still enroll in special accounts that help you save for your future. For example, using an individual retirement account (IRA) can ensure financial stability after retirement. IRAs come in two types: traditional or Roth, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. If these aren’t an option, you may consider traditional savings or investment accounts, which also let you grow your retirement wealth over the long term.

4. Avoid Taking Benefits Early

In most cases, you shouldn’t withdraw from or take a loan from retirement accounts until you retire or you may have to pay additional penalties. Learn the rules about spending retirement money, and unless you’re in a serious bind, leave the money where it belongs: safely in its account.

5. Start Investing

In addition to 401(k)s or employer-based retirement accounts, you can start putting some money into personal investments. If you’re an investment first-timer, you might want to check out investment apps like Acorns, Betterment, or Digit. These services let you make small, automatic deposits into accounts that, once you’ve got a larger balance, could blossom into full-fledged nest eggs. You may even qualify for a special credit card that puts a percentage of purchases into a retirement account.

6. Tackle Your Spending Habits

If you’re one of the 60% of Americans who spend as much as or more than they earn, you should consider improving your money habits now. Living above your means could spell problems for your finances during retirement by leaving you with costly debt, bad credit, and fewer financial options. Take the time to assess your spending, create a budget, and build smart spending habits to set yourself up for a frugal yet fulfilling future.

7. Manage Your Debt

Alongside improved spending efforts, you should make sure your debt levels are sufficiently managed before you retire. Large debts, especially the costly, easy-to-misuse kinds with high interest rates (e.g., credit cards), should be paid off as quickly as possible. Other debts, like student loans, auto loans, and mortgages, are less worrisome, but if you can pay them off too, even better. Heading into retirement debt-free will free up time, money, and your mind for an easier life.

8. Improve Your Credit Score

Managing and paying off debt improves your credit score, and having good credit should be one of your retirement goals. If you plan to make large purchases—homes, cars, boats, whatever your lifestyle—after you stop working, you may need to apply for loans or mortgages. Having a pristine credit score will save you money and minimize payments in your later decades. The first step to improve your credit is to find out where you stand now, and then work to inch the score upward.

9. Get the Right Insurance Coverage

At age 65, you can apply for Medicare, the federal health coverage program available to most American retirees. But Medicare doesn’t come totally free, and you have lots of choices when deciding on health coverage in retirement. Make sure you have the right insurance for your needs so you don’t get stuck with costly medical bills. The same goes for auto, home, and other insurance. As you age, your insurance options change, so make sure you’ve examined your options and made the right choices.

10. Adjust Your Plan as Needed

Because you can’t plan for everything, be ready to adjust your financial retirement goals if necessary. Changing or losing your job, getting married or divorced, or experiencing costly emergency expenses can all be reasons to reassess your retirement plans.

Even if your employer hasn’t given you any financial retirement advice, now’s the time to start preparing for your future. You can set yourself up for a comfortable retirement by taking these steps right away—no matter which stage of life you’re in.

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