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8 Minute Read

How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

8 Minute Read

How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

If you’re out of work right now, the first thing I want to say is this: I feel for you. Losing your job is always a difficult and scary thing to experience. Life has punched you in the gut—but you’re not down for the count. You can choose to get back up and press on. What seems like a setback now can actually work out in your favor to move you into a new and better position down the road.

But first, there are some priorities to take care of, especially if you’re the primary breadwinner in your family. One of your options is to apply for unemployment benefits—money that’s funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s insurance program to help people who are temporarily out of work. Unemployment benefits are like a financial band-aid: They’re a short-term fix to keep food on the table and the lights on until you find another job.

And keep in mind that unemployment isn’t a free handout. These are your tax dollars at work. Keep a long-term mindset and don’t let a check from Uncle Sam keep you from being productive and pursuing your purpose.

Ready to find your dream job? We'll show you how.

Let’s walk through how to apply for unemployment benefits together.    

Do I Qualify for Unemployment?

The most important factor to qualify for unemployment is that you lost your job “through no fault of your own.” Translation: You can’t receive unemployment benefits if you quit or were fired due to a lack of poor performance or behavior issues. You only qualify if you were laid off because there was a lack of available work.

You also need to demonstrate that you’ve been working up until recently, establishing what’s called a “base period.” Most states require proof that you’ve been working the first four of the past five quarters—meaning that steady employment was your “norm” before you were laid off.

Unemployment Benefits Expanded Due to Coronavirus

The CARES Act (the recent government stimulus package signed into law on March 27, 2020) has expanded unemployment benefits to a larger group than ever before in order to help people who are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic. You may be eligible for benefits now if you fall into one of these categories:

  1. Part-time workers
  2. Contract, freelance and self-employed workers
  3. Those without enough employment history (to meet traditional standards)

The CARES Act is also making unemployment benefits available longer than normal—extending benefits from 26 weeks to 39 weeks. If you’ve lost income due to reduced hours, but you still have your job, there might be short-term compensation benefits available in your state.1

Enhanced Unemployment Benefits Under the CARES Act

Here’s the big whopper of a change from the CARES Act: enhanced benefits. The federal government is planning to give everyone who qualifies for unemployment an additional $600 a week, on top of the money they’re receiving from their state. Depending on your income level, this will be far more than you get from the state, and maybe even far more than you were making at your job!2

Here’s the reason why this is happening: Normally, unemployment money should be low enough to motivate you to keep searching for a job. But as we practice social distancing to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, this extra $600 a week will allow many people to stay home and out of the workforce until it’s safe for everyone to go back.

Do I Qualify for Unemployment if I’m on Furlough?

If you’ve been furloughed without pay, but you’re technically still employed, you should still qualify for unemployment aid—as long as you’re not receiving income.

As the coronavirus forces many businesses to close their doors, companies are putting their employees on furlough instead of completely laying them off. This has an upside: Once the economy starts moving again, you will hopefully have a job to return to. But in the meantime, you still need income!

How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

Before we move any further, let me set some expectations for you. Record numbers of people—we’re talking millions—have filed for unemployment since early March 2020. The system was not prepared to handle this rush. It’s like trying to channel the Mississippi River through a straw! Okay, maybe that’s extreme, but you get my point: Be prepared for some delays and be patient. The people who are working on your behalf are doing the best they can.

Follow these three steps to get your application going:

1. Contact your state’s unemployment office.

Contact your state’s unemployment office as soon as possible after you’ve lost your job. Some states have a short waiting period between qualifying for unemployment and receiving your first check, so you want to get the ball rolling as soon as you can.

Due to the spike of activity from the coronavirus, some states are implementing systems to help organize the process. For example, you might be asked to apply on a certain day of the week to space things out. Pay close attention and read directions carefully. The last thing you want is to make a mistake on your end that causes your check to be delayed.

2. Gather all the information you’ll need.

Ask the administrators or read online about the information you’ll need to provide. Gathering your documents before applying will make the process easier and keep it from being delayed. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license information
  • W-2 (which you will use to locate your Federal Employer Identification Number)
  • Address of former employers and dates you worked there (over the past 18 months)
  • Reason for being laid off
  • Salary/compensation history (over the past 18 months)

3. Fill out the application.

Most states will allow you to apply online, especially since offices are closed due to social distancing. You should apply in the state where you worked, even if you’ve since moved to another state. Each state varies, but you can generally choose how you’d like to receive your benefits—via check, direct deposit or a debit card.

How Long Does It Take to Receive Unemployment Benefits?

It generally takes two to three weeks before you receive your first check, but once again—each state is different. Some enforce a one-week waiting period before your benefits start to come through. You’ll want to make sure you’re budgeting and paying only your essentials until your benefits start to come in.

Take care of your Four Walls—food, utilities, shelter and transportation—first to tide you over if you’re missing a paycheck. If necessary, look for part-time jobs to supplement your income until you’ve found your next full-time gig.

How to Overcome Setbacks in Your Career

You can’t live on unemployment benefits forever, and you need to make sure you have enough for your family in the meantime. Take advantage of the program to cover your basic needs for now, but make sure you’re preparing for your next move. Here are three ways you can make progress in your career after you’ve lost a job:

1. Get a side gig. Work part time to make extra money during this time so you can take care of your family and keep up the momentum. While you’re there, build relationships with your new coworkers. You never know who you’ll meet and what connections you’ll make that will set you up for the next phase of your career.

2. Reflect on the big picture. Were you happy in your job before the pandemic? Do you want to return to that industry, or is this your opportunity to get on the path to your dream job? Take advantage of the extra time you have to journal and come up with a long-term plan for the changes you want to make.

3. Prepare for your next move. It’s time to dust off the ol’ resume, search online, and start preparing for upcoming job applications. I’ve got several free guides to help you get hired—from creating a resume that stands out to preparing for an interview.

These are tough times that test us and reveal what we’re made of. But in good times and bad, anything worth doing requires time, perseverance and patience. You have what it takes. Press on!

About Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show The Ken Coleman Show and the #1 bestselling author of The Proximity Principle

Pulling from his own personal struggles, missed opportunities and career successes, Coleman will help you discover what you were born to do and provide practical steps to make your dream job a reality.

Listen to The Ken Coleman Show on YouTube, SiriusXM, your local radio station or wherever you listen to podcasts—and connect with Ken at kencoleman.com.