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

unemployment

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, Credit.com’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 Mass.gov: 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

Image: istock

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How Unemployment Can Really Drive Up Your Tax Bill

Avoid these mistakes when receiving unemployment benefits.

Back in September of 2015, I lost my job and decided to take unemployment benefits for the first time in my life while I looked for a new one. Even the significantly reduced income that the unemployment benefits provided was a needed cushion since we’d closed on a new home the same week I lost my job. I’d crunched the numbers, and taking the benefits was going to be a better alternative than using money from our emergency fund (which was tied to the markets and had fallen significantly just the month before).

What I didn’t account for was taxes, so when I received that 1099-G form from the unemployment commission last spring, I was confused. I owed income tax on the benefits I’d received, which were already just 25% of what my income had been? Seriously? It felt unfair that my employers had been paying into unemployment insurance all these years so I’d have the benefit if I ever needed it, and now the government was going to take a good-sized chunk of that money I needed to keep our family afloat.

After a couple of hours of grumping, I bucked up, talked to our accountant and moved on. Of course it was my fault that I didn’t ask the right questions and do the necessary research to see what the tax consequences of receiving unemployment benefits would be. I was more mad at myself than anything, but the reality was that, instead of getting a refund, I was going to be paying Uncle Sam a couple thousand dollars.

Here’s how you can avoid having to do the same:

1. Get Those Taxes Withheld

If you’re currently unemployed, are receiving benefits and aren’t having taxes withheld, request that they do so now. Yes, your benefit amount will decrease, but it’s easier to cut back a little each week now than it is to come up with a larger lump sum when your taxes come due.

2. Review Your Filing Options

If you received unemployment benefits in 2016 and didn’t have taxes withheld, you’re going to have to pay them. Fortunately, there are some ways to mitigate just how much.

“You do have to claim your unemployment income, but remember your new lower income may make you eligible for tax benefits you couldn’t qualify for before,” said Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert with TurboTax. “You also may be eligible for tax deductions and credits which can lower your tax liability.”

For example, you could qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is worth up to $6,269 for a family with three or more children. There’s also the Child Tax Credit of $1,000 for each dependent under 17 years old, and Education Tax Credits like the Lifetime Learning Credit, which can be up to $2,000. (You can find a quick guide to common tax exemptions and deductions here.)

“Credits are great because they lower your tax liability dollar for dollar,” Greene-Lewis said. “Also don’t forget what the IRS calls above-the-line deductions like deductible expenses for educator expenses paid up to $250, student loan interest up to $2,500, moving expenses for a job, and deductible IRA contributions, which can lower your taxable income.

“If you make below the IRS income filing threshold of $10,350 single ($20,700 married filing jointly), you also may not be required to file your taxes, however, you should if you had federal taxes deducted in your paycheck,” she said.

It could be worth your time and effort to get some guidance from a tax professional if you’re feeling uncertain about how all these credits work. If you can’t afford to pay a professional and you made less than $54,000 last year, there are free tax preparation services provided by the IRS. You may have to stand in line for a bit, but it could end up saving you significantly on your taxes.

3. Don’t Avoid Filing or Paying Your Taxes

Getting into trouble with the IRS is the last thing you want to deal with coming off of a stint of unemployment, so if you’ve reviewed all of the above options and find you’re still going to have a hefty tax bill due that you simply can’t afford, don’t panic, and definitely don’t put off dealing with the situation.

First, if you’re once again employed and can qualify for a credit card with a 0% introductory offer for purchases, you could pay your tax bill using that card and pay it off over time without any interest or penalties. It’s a good idea to check your credit scores before applying to ensure you qualify. You can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, here on Credit.com.

If that’s not an option for you, you could consider using a credit card you already have, especially if it has a low APR, but you’ll end up paying significant interest, which will end up just costing you more money and probably isn’t a great idea. Instead, your best bet is likely talking to the IRS and asking for an installment agreement. That, Greene-Lewis said, allows you to pay your tax liability over a six-year period if necessary.

Think you’re going to owe Uncle Sam this year? You can find 7 ways to potentially cut your tax bill here.

Image: PK-Photos

 

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