How to Claim Unemployment Benefits in the US

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Unemployment benefits (sometimes called unemployment insurance or unemployment compensation) is a social welfare system in the United States meant to assist individuals who suddenly find themselves without meaningful employment through no fault of their own. It’s a federal program supervised by the Department of Labor, but administered through the fifty individual states in America.

Each state has its own system in place, with funding coming via both federal and state level contributions. The State Service Centers can help with your application and collection. The requirements and criteria used for determination of eligibility and amount of compensation vary slightly depending on which state you live in, but the system is essentially the same everywhere in the country.


Generally speaking, in order to be eligible to receive unemployment benefits, you must meet the following criteria:

  • You must be able to work.
  • You must be actively seeking work.
  • You must be available for work.
  • You must not refuse any reasonable offer of work.

Meeting these basic requirements is the first step. You must also be unemployed through no fault of your own. If you quit your last job, or were fired for incompetence, gross negligence, or a violation of company policy, then you are NOT eligible. The benefits are intended to financially assist people laid off or downsized.

Furthermore, some states may require proof beyond just your word. You may have to provide the names and contact details of businesses where you have applied for a job.

Each state uses their own equation for determining length of eligibility and amount of compensation. They typically look at the length of employment and previous salary to make a determination. As a point of reference, benefits are usually granted for a six month period (extensions are possible, but increasingly difficult to get), and the average weekly amount in 2010 was $293.

The program is meant to assist in the short-term, and it is not meant to be a replacement for employment.


It takes roughly two weeks from the time you apply until you receive your first payment. Applications can be made via the internet or telephone in most states (although the process is initiated by your previous employer in some states).

Go to the State Service Center for your home state to get specific instructions and details.

In California, for example, you can get the ball rolling via their online application. You have to provide information about all your employers (name, contact details, length of employment, wage) in the previous 18 months before your claim, as well as a detailed explanation about why you are no longer working (among other things). Be honest and clear, because everything will be compared to the information they receive from your previous employers.

In New York state, you can also apply for benefits online. You’ll need a NY.GOV ID before you file, though. The website can help with that, too.

Each state has a detailed and helpful website set up to answer your questions, file your first claim, and most include instructions on setting up a weekly claim. Many of the sites also provide useful tips on finding work (some even include job boards) and how to maximize your benefits.

Be aware that fraudulent claims will eventually be discovered, and claimants will then be required to pay back in full any benefits received. Trying to take advantage of the program takes money away from those that truly need it to get through a financial rough spot. Finally, remember that these benefits are considered part of your income for tax purposes.

Businesses fail. Companies go under. Staff is downsized. There’s no real way to prepare for it, but the unemployment insurance programs in the United States are there to help, even if only for a little while. It should be enough money and for enough time for anyone to weather the storm and find something new. It’s not meant to replace finding a job. It simply helps bridge the gap between losing one through no fault of your own, and finding something comparable. It’s a good safety net, and one that saves millions of people during difficult times.




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